A Symposium for Young People’s Chorus and New Conductors
By ANTHONY TOMMASINI
Francisco J. Núñez knows a thing or two about directing children’s choirs. Last year, for his work as the founding artistic director of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, which draws students from all backgrounds into high-level choral performances, Mr. Núñez was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.
So it made sense for Carnegie Hall, through the Weill Music Institute, to collaborate with Mr. Núñez and the chorus in a new symposium to train choral conductors. The goal was to give 8 conductors selected from more than 50 applicants some intensive experience in performing challenging new choral music with student ensembles. New music has been a passion for Mr. Núñez through his chorus’s Transient Glory program. Since 2011 he has requested, encouraged, pleaded with and all but shaken down composers everywhere to write works for the Young People’s Chorus. There have been some 60 premieres so far. Several more short works are being added to that tally through the symposium, a series of three varied programs at different halls that began with an exhilarating concert on Thursday night at Le Poisson Rouge. It featured music by Michael Gordon, Derek Bermel and Paquito D’Rivera.
In a way, the real work had already happened at three daylong rehearsal sessions. The conductor fellows worked with Mr. Núñez and eight associate conductors, who are all participating in the series, preparing the new works, along with some existing scores written for the chorus by these composers. By concert time on Thursday Mr. Núñez had simply to sit in the audience and listen to his eager, impressive young choristers.
Each composer on this program, hosted by the WNYC radio announcer John Schaefer, was introduced with a chamber work. The evening began with Mr. Gordon’s “Potassium,” played by the dynamic JACK Quartet, a gritty, audacious piece in which the musicians play major and minor chords that slide up and down the strings, with the sounds put through a distortion unit, or fuzz box.
“Exalted,” performed next, was an emotional piece, Mr. Gordon explained, written after the death of his father. The text is the first four words of Kaddish, the mourning prayer from the Jewish liturgy. The chorus, conducted by Stephanie Mowery, gave a gripping performance of this piercing music, a fabric of modal scales, chanted phrases and wailing strings (the JACK Quartet).
By request, the new pieces were very short. Mr. Gordon’s playful “Cinnamon,” conducted by Philip Brunelle and accompanied by the pianist Jon Holden, is a charming, clever miniature, with patter phrases and singsong melodic lines. He submitted it without a text, so Mr. Núñez supplied the words, a list of cooking herbs and spices, including cinnamon, marjoram, rosemary, salt and pepper.
In the second segment, with Rebecca Lord conducting and Mr. Holden at the piano, the chorus performed “A Child’s War,” Mr. Bermel’s setting of three poems his father, Albert Bermel, wrote, recounting his experiences as a boy in London during World War II. The music mostly moves in pungent block chords that let the words come through clearly, sung here with robust sound and crisp diction. Mr. Bermel’s new piece was a rap, “YPChant,” done with sass and directed by Janet Galván.
A contingent of girls from the chorus sang Mr. D’Rivera’s “Tembandumba,” a coy, flirtatious, rhythmically bopping Spanish-text piece that has become a favorite with the singers, here conducted by Dominick DiOrio with percussion by Chris Thompson.
The concert ended with Elizabeth Núñez, one of the chorus’s regular conductors and Mr. Núñez’s wife, leading the premiere of Mr. D’Rivera’s “Un Minuto.” In the Spanish text for this breathless work the choristers complain that they have just a minute to sing the thing.
The Transient Glory series concludes on Saturday night at Zankel Hall; (212) 247-7800, carnegiehall.org