Katherine Balch, California Symphony Young American Composer-in-Residence 2017-2020, sits down with Illuminate soloists artists Kelly Guerra and Alexandra Smither to talk about vocal music, their shared history, and their weirdest performance moments.
This article was originally posted in February 2020.
Kelly Guerra (mezzo-soprano), Molly Netter (soprano), and Alexandra Smither (soprano) are each incredible interpreters of music old and new. Kelly Guerra has been flagged by the Wall Street Journal as a “standout,” the New York Times praised Molly Netter for her “clear, beautiful tone and vivacious personality,” and the voice of Alexandra Smither has been called “enchantingly supple” by Mooney on Theatre. I am so lucky to call these incredible artists my friends and have the chance to write specifically for their voices in my song cycle, Illuminate.
While Molly was busy making her solo debut in LA with Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra, I asked Kelly and Ally a few questions about their busy careers, our friendship, and the music they love.
Katherine Balch: Can you introduce yourself to the California Symphony? How did you become a singer? Are there any “aha” moments that stick out to you as particularly career-shaping?
Kelly Guerra: Hi! I’m a native Californian, and a first generation American. My mother is from Peru, hence the last name Guerra. I’m currently finishing out my residency at Opera Santa Barbara as a Chrisman Studio Artist while finishing my doctorate of musical arts in vocal performance at the University of California Santa Barbara.
I think that I’ve always liked to sing, but maybe my first step in becoming an opera singer was when I had to sing an Italian art song as a final for my choir class during my Freshman year of high school. The air left the room when I was done singing, for a moment I thought I was terrible; and suddenly my classmates were cheering. I thought “well, maybe I’m an okay singer?”
As far as “aha” moments, I feel like I discovered myself as an artist during three different educational programs that almost naturally propelled me to the next. The first being Songfest at Colburn, as I discovered my love for art song there. I did the summer program three times. Then, I went to the Bard College Conservatory and got to work on myself as an artist and musician under the loving mentorship of some of the most wonderful humans I’ve known, including Dawn Upshaw and Sanford Sylvan.
Lastly, I was offered a fellowship for two summers at the Tanglewood Music Center and it was there that my artistic aspiration and skills were propelled to the next level. I was in heaven: I got to listen to and work with seasoned professional musicians and orchestras as well as my ridiculously talented peers. Speaking of ridiculously talented, that’s where I met my dear friends Alexandra Smither and Katherine Balch!
Alexandra Smither: Hello! My name is Alexandra, but everyone calls me Ally. I started singing in choir when I was in middle school and it sort of progressed from there. I was always really fascinated by the intricacies of music that seemed to magically align. When it came time to go to University, singing was better funded than my other option, a philosophy degree, so here I am now!
When I think of “aha” moments, they’re all very much connected to people. I remember my undergrad professor, Dr. Elizabeth McDonald, sitting me down to tell me I could achieve a lot if I focused. I distinctly remember my teacher in my Masters, Dr. Barbara Clark, talking to me about patience. There are countless other moments that spring to mind with gnarly, wild pieces (and equally wild colleagues); if there is anything that the avalanche of these moments has shown me, it is that this difficult life path is truly worth it.
KB: You each perform music across a wide variety of genres. Can you tell the California Symphony a bit about what it’s like to float between styles from very early to very modern music? Do you have a favorite type of music to perform?
KG: At the risk of being overly simplistic: I love making sounds and I love telling stories. Period. So, as long as I love the story that I’m telling, I’m invested in it. The sounds come with the attachment to the music and text, and if that calls for different styles, that’s all part of the fun. It’s all the same instrument and the same body, just different functions! As far as favorite types of music to perform, I’d have to say orchestral song cycles are my favorite. I’m itching to sing Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs with orchestra!
AS: Oh man, at the risk of sounding silly (or snobby), my favorite type of music to perform is anything that is well-constructed. Overall shape, impetus, balance, imagination, and story – that’s what I’m drawn to. I do have a soft spot for contemporary music because I love the sound palate we’re often presented with. What can I say, I like making strange sounds. But, I also love singing a gorgeous legato line, and for that Mozart can’t be beat.
As for what it’s like physically, the same voice sings it all. I strongly believe that you need to be singing modern music with the same beauty, support, and commitment that you sing Mozart, and you should sing Mozart with the same creativity in sound and willingness to try new things as you would with modern rep.
KB: What is your memory of how we met?
KG: We were both fellows at Tanglewood- I remember meeting in Miss Hall’s school at some point, most likely introduced by the much more socially able Alexandra Smither. I’ll never forget when after a performance of mine you said, “ I AM WRITING YOU A PIECE!” I still blush thinking about that!
AS: I distinctly remember meeting you at Tanglewood in the summer of 2018. My dear friend Ben had already introduced us over email and I was already a big fan of your music. Immediately I was like “YES, this girl has an energy that I am HERE for.”
KB: Besides Illuminate, what upcoming projects are you excited about?
KG: I’m looking forward to finishing my DMA! I’m also looking forward to my first summer at Chautauqua opera and performing the role of Indiana Elliot of Virgil Thomson’s The Mother of Us All.
AS: Ah, I’m probably most excited for Pushback Season 2. Pushback is a bassoon-soprano duo I’m a part of with my dear friend Ben Roidl-Ward. We had our first round of commissions and first tour in 2019, and we’ve got our second round of commissions coming up. I think we’ve got something pretty special going, so it’s going to be very exciting to get to do it again!
KB: There’s so much incredible vocal repertoire in the classical canon. What attracts you to contemporary music?
KG: Aside from being part of a living art form, using my thinking cap for those funky rhythms and notes, and making cool sounds? Well, being able to collaborate with composers on the piece they wrote for you is a very special feeling – one that I hope every singer gets to experience at least once. It is thrilling to be creating something, as it draws out a side of oneself that is absolutely new. When something is brand new, there is no performance practice for the piece, and having the first crack at it is liberating!
AS: The noises and the people. I love finding new sounds and new ways to express the incredibly complex world we live in. Contemporary music allows so much room to create things that reflect the world around us, and to actively address systematic problems within our art form. The absolute bonus about creating new works is the people you do it with: friends and colleagues who are fascinated and drawn into the new, who want to create gorgeous, generous works for the public. Those are my favorite kinds of people.
KB: What’s the weirdest thing that you’ve had to do or that’s happened to you in a performance?
KG: Well, Katie, tapping rocks together in a piece is a first for me…
AS: Oh, I keep thinking of things but can’t settle on one. There’s been sprained ankles and a run of shows with a leg brace underneath. Hidden Smirnoff Ices. Technology going awry. The list goes on and on.
KB: Is there anything else you want California Symphony audience members to know?
KG: I went to SFCM for my bachelor’s degree and am so happy to be returning to the Bay Area.
AS: I am so excited to be here. I love you and can’t wait to bring your vision to life! Plus, Kelly is one of my best friends in the entire world, and I can’t wait to meet Molly, and see what we’ll get up to.
The California Symphony’s FRENCH IMPRESSIONS featuring the world premiere of Illuminate by Katherine Balch, California Symphony Young Composer in Residence (2017-20), takes place Saturday, March 26 at 7:30 PM and Sunday, March 27 at 4 PM at the Lesher Center for the Arts. Tickets are $44 to $74. Buy tickets online or call or visit the Lesher Center Ticket Office at 925.943.7469, Wed – Sun, 12:00 noon to 6:00 pm.