The Kids are All Right: Young People’s Chorus of New York City at 92nd Street Y


(c) Stephanie Berger

Choral singing: joy to last a lifetime


Transient Glory Tenth Anniversary Concert, May 6, 2011


I first encountered these wonderful young musicians on assignment a few years ago, and I've since enjoyed their contributions to events like the 2008 Bang on A Can All Stars Marathon and the 2010 Terry Riley In C Anniversary concert in Carnegie Hall. The touchingly pure sound of young voices is irresistible to begin with; this ensemble's fearless performances of impressively difficult contemporary music is astonishing. So this isn't exactly an unbiased report. 


Founded by Artistic Director and conductor Francisco J. Nuñez in 1988, the group provides applied music education to over 1300 children aged 7-18 in after school programs, mostly in New York City. The youngest participants receive basic musical and vocal training, and as they mature they progress through five levels of choirs. The top performing ensembles have performed in New York's most prestigious venues. YPC (everyone connected with the group seems to use the acronym) has made a number of CDs and has toured in the U.S. and internationally, including three trips to Japan. The organization also hosts seminars for young singers and for music teachers.


The group's pride and joy is Transient Glory, a unique initiative for commissioning, performing, and publishing new music for youth choirs. John Schaefer, host of New Sounds, a local Public Radio show devoted to contemporary music, best expressed how unusual this project is: when Nuñez first told him that he'd invited composers like Michael Torke and John Corigliano to write music for his chorus and how would he, John, like to host the first concert, Schaefer blurted, "You did WHAT??" Some composers at first hesitated, warning that they only wrote "difficult music". But Nuñez and his singers conquered the challenges, at first with trepidation over the music's difficulty, and progressively with more confidence as the choristers learned to approach new music without fear. Ten years later, with close to 60 new works to their credit, YPC's accomplishments have earned respect in the musical establishment and, judging from the audience's whoops and cheers, an enthusiastic following. Shaefer's introductions created a relaxed ambiance and gave the diverse audience a wedge for approaching the varied and sophisticated program.


With YPC's extensive commissioned repertoire it must have been tough to cherry-pick pieces for this anniversary concert. The evening opened strongly with Michael Torke's Song of Ezekiel (2001, one of the very first commissions) a lyrically homophonic setting of the Biblical verse over a pulsing piano accompaniment, played by YPC pianist Jon Holden, with voices taking up the rhythm when the piano went into more lyrical figuration.


For me the highlight of the evening came next in Paquito D'Rivera's Tembandumba (2009, premiered June 2010), a jazzy, genre-crossing celebration of Puerto Rican street life. Choristers sang, recited, and danced up a storm, both solo and together, anchored by Payton MacDonald's Latin percussion accompaniment. The wistful lyricism of John Corigliano's One Sweet Morning (2006) on an anti-war poem by Yip Harburg introduced a calmer note, and was followed by Meredith Monk's fascinating and hypnotic layered a capella vocalisms (Things Heaven and Hell, from Three Heavens and Hells, 2007). David Del Tredici's grandiose and slyly ironic Four Heartfelt Anthems (2003), with Jon Holden on piano and soprano Courtney Budd, provided substantial settings infor an eclectic selection of texts, written in conventional choral textures.


After intermission and a brief panel discussion, Michael Harrison's Hijaz received its world premiere as the latest Transient Glory commission. Cellist Maya Beiser, percussionist Payton MacDonald on tablas, and Michael Harrison, playing a piano tuned in just intonation, contributed a Middle Eastern flavor. I didn't hear much difference in the choir's tuning–their intonation is always superb–with the introduction of the non-tempered piano. The piece didn't make the strongest impression of the evening, but it should settle in after a few more outings.


Recently I heard a glorious concert performance of Verdi's Otello by the Chicago Symphony and soloists at Carnegie Hall under Riccardo Muti. One of the pleasures of the evening was the brief second act contribution by the excellent Chicago Children's Choir, a similar organization (though twice as large, founded in 1956 "during the Civil Rights Movement"). The Chicago youngsters sang beautifully, with an enthusiasm as touching as their sweet voices. But I missed the moxie and ownership of the music shown by the New York kids. Beyond the familiarity of being on home turf–granting the Chicago kids the awe factor of singing in Carnegie–the YPCers perform with a more distinctive personality.


After a recent streak of curmudgeonly postings here I have to throw in a carp or two: despite a robust history of centuries of choral music Nuñez programs almost exclusively music of our time. From the evidence of YouTube, YPC's performance of renaissance music, a mainstay of the choral repertoire, falls short of their excellence in contemporary material, lacking the crystalline precision needed to bring out the counterpoint with clarity.


But my main complaint–really, more a rant about the lowly status of the arts in the U.S.–is that this extraordinary opportunity is available to so few kids. Over 1,300 children aged 7 to 18 participate in YPC's programs in New York and beyond–but with over a million students in the New York City public schools system, that's not much. The Chicago Children's Choir has twice as many participants, but such scattershot initiatives are meager compensation for the widespread elimination of such "frills" from the schools.


With the shortsighted elimination of music education from public schools, most kids' exposure to music is through the earbuds of their mp3 players. The highly produced extravaganzas of Lady Gaga, Kanye West and their contemporaries are more about erotic or violent glamour than music, and create a extremely narrow notion of the art's potential expressive power and beauty. Venezuela's El Systema has proven the value to individuals and to society of teaching musical skills to children, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds. YPC's literature states: "100% of YPC graduates finish high school on time and enroll in college." And I'll mention only in passing the elephant in the room: classical music's dwindling audiences, which will continue to shrink as children grow up never hearing this music. The American musical landscape would be immeasurably different if even a tenth of the country's young people had access to a program like YPC.


Beyond the important contributions to choral repertoire, YPC's greatest achievement is the transformation of young people who, while making music at a very high level, learn life lessons like discipline and persistence in the face of challenge along with a love of music. Some will be tomorrow's music makers; more of them will be tomorrow's audiences. But all will be tomorrow's citizens, prepared beyond the urban classroom for life's challenges. To quote a haiku-like entry on the YPC blog:  "City kids singing together. Lives changed."