After 37 years of leading the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir (PEBCC), founding Artistic Director Robert Geary will pass on the baton and leadership role to conductor and composer Eric Tuan in July.
Tuan, 28, is a former chorister, conductor of the choir’s high-school mixed choir Ecco, and composer-in-residence. Geary, 67, will continue to conduct the choir’s Ancora ensemble as his successor assumes leadership and oversight of the organization.
In a joint interview at the choir’s offices on Grand Avenue, Geary and Tuan shared their visions for the future. They have matching aspirations for the choir and are united in their dedication to rigorous classical training and fresh, contemporary repertoire that attracts young singers ages 4 to 18 from the East Bay.
“We live in a complicated, dangerous world and children in that world are going to have to understand it and figure out a way forward,” says Geary about the drive to introduce fresh music to the young, treble choirs. “A new piece of music means conductor and singers, together, discover, master and accomplish what the experience is about.”
Tuan says, “There’s thrill to exploring historical or new music with young people; they’re not inhibited. They go to it fearlessly. A children’s choir is a great vehicle; their clear timbre of voice, pure and excellent intonation.”
Achieving skilled clarity requires hard work, relentless commitment and an inspirational leader. Tuan admires Geary’s ability to listen, to offer to each student “a sacred quality of attention.” Geary, asked to assess Tuan, says, “He’s a person with such capacity that regardless of the challenge, he will elevate the problem to a solution that defuses the pain and anxiety. I’ve seen organizations recruit something that looks new, bright and shiny — and fail miserably. I knew for years that if this was a position Eric wanted to have, that he was uniquely qualified.”
Tuan’s qualifications arise in part from earning a B.A. in Music with Honors from Stanford University, a Master of Music in Choral Studies with Distinction at the University of Cambridge, success as a singer with Volti, Cappella SF, Philharmonia Baroque Chorale, among others, and choral works published by E.C. Schirmer and commissions from ensembles in the United States and Europe.
Beyond professional achievements, Geary highlights Tuan’s interpersonal aptitude. Actively engaging with administration and music staff, PEBCC Board members, the community, over 300 families, and youths moving through puberty is no easy task. “You have to support a high level performance and also support the issues of young people growing up,” says Geary.
This summer, Tuan is looking forward to “watching our people be swept up in musical and cultural experiences (on tour) and participating in communities that are welcoming and provide a transcendent experience.” He expects the Estonian Song Festival (Laulupidu), with an over 100-year history, more than 30,000 singers and up to 400,000 audience members, to be a high point during a tour this June. “I remember visiting Cuba on my first international tour as a singer. The six-hour-long lunch with Fidel Castro was memorable, but when the choir performed alongside the Cuban National Children’s Choir in Havana, I vividly remember realizing they had technical mastery of a form I didn’t know and wanted to learn. A whole new world opened to me.”
Geary’s fondest memory also connects to an international choir experience, this one from Linz, Austria. “I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of national pride when the kids won the first prize at the 2000 Choir Olympics.”
Geary’s intentions as he contemplates his next steps focus on letting go. “Becoming the advisor rather than the decider, there may be more episodes of processing. But I’m invigorated to see what I’ll do with (independent adult chorus) Volti, SF Choral Society, and here, with Ancora.”
Tuan recognizes “the tremendous legacy” established by Geary is enviable but intimidating. “But I’m here to take the organization into a new, different future,” he says. “Being open to new possibilities is both thrilling and scary. I’m an insider, but also someone who has new perspectives on the world. There’s energy for exploring ideas and collaborations that have been percolating in my mind for several years.” Asked what those new initiatives might be, Tuan says performing music that lifts up stories and cultures with which he and the singers are less familiar, making music with sounds other than bel canto voices, more works by deserving female composers and powerful storytelling texts that break cultural, racial or ethnic divides are initial priorities.
Which leaves Geary, ever the sage, to predict: “If you put intelligent, well-intentioned people together, good things happen, in music and other things.”