By Stuart Isacoff
Francisco Núñez wears his MacArthur Award lightly. The 46-year-old composer-conductor who founded the Young People's Chorus of New York City—a group that embodies both the pinnacle of musical achievement and its ability to foster social renewal—proudly displays the gifts that friends showered on him when the "genius" grant was announced: a Rubik's Cube and the games Cranium and Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?
He laughs off the "genius" label. But concertgoers who attend the organization's next performances—on Thursday at the St. Patrick's Cathedral Christmas concert, Friday at the 92nd Street Y and Sunday at the JCC Manhattan (in a newly commissioned Hanukkah opera from composer Victoria Bond and librettist Susan L. Roth)—won't dismiss it quite so easily.
That's because Mr. Núñez has pulled off a small miracle. The children in his choruses, who pointedly come from diverse backgrounds, economic levels and degrees of experience, render complex works from the classical repertoire—many commissioned especially for them from today's top composers—with astounding virtuosity and palpable joy. At a recent concert, this audience member nearly fell out of his seat in astonishment; only a heart of stone could have remained unmoved.
The idea for the chorus sprang from the conductor's own childhood experiences. "I was born in New York City to a working-class family," he says. "My father passed away when I was 14. My mom was an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who always wanted to be a pianist but ended up working in the garment industry. I went back and forth a lot between the States and the Dominican Republic, and in both places I had a piano. Practicing kept me off the streets, which were dangerous.
"I loved Chopin and also merengue music, and when I played recitals or entered competitions I met other children my age, many from other cultures. The instrument allowed me to speak to a different class of person—classical music has always represented an educated sphere, whether you are poor or rich. And it taught me that you have to work hard to achieve something. I'd practice six or seven hours a day, and ended up focusing on Spanish repertoire, and on Dominican composers like Bullumba Landestoy, who wrote lots of waltzes."
When he graduated from New York University, Mr. Nuñez embarked on a mission to apply those lessons to others. "I wanted to take kids from neighborhoods where you couldn't play in the street, combine them with kids from other groups, and use music to instill a sense of discipline. The point of Young People's Chorus is to give them an opportunity to learn about themselves and others—that's its social mission. Once they are with us, they make better decisions; it impacts their schoolwork, and it encourages them to seek out a diverse community." Along the way, it turns chorus members into remarkably high-level musicians.
It was a new concept, and there were plenty of hurdles to overcome. "After college I found work at the Children's Aid Society, but I told them that I would only take the job if I could design a music program for them. However, they wanted to keep kids in their own neighborhoods, to feel empowered in those neighborhoods, and I wanted to get buses to bring kids from five different regions to a central place. It was a logistical nightmare, and we also had to win over the parents, which wasn't easy.
"At first, we sang terribly—the music wasn't the point yet." But the group soon evolved. Mr. Núñez looked for repertoire that would reflect his overall philosophy of combining cultural traditions. "I always wanted a hybrid," he reports, "like bringing Indian raga and Inuit chant together with a backbeat of American pop. But we treated each style with respect: We didn't sing Brahms the way we did something that was Native American. And whenever we tackled a particular type of music—gospel, or Chinese, or Dominican—there would be kids from that particular background to help us get it right."
Thus was born the commissioning program he calls Transient Glory. To date, more than 60 composers have written works for the group. "He's like a pied piper for kids from all walks of life—he brings them together," says Meredith Monk, this year's winner of Musical America's Composer of the Year award. "I think he is one of the greatest musicians we have, and these kids will never forget the experience."
One way in which the MacArthur grant has helped, he says, is that people now pay more attention. "I can make a phone call, and the person on the other end will respond positively. 'You're the hot thing now,' they tell me." But it hasn't influenced his direction. He has begun a project in the Dominican Republic, hoping to inspire the country to create a similar program. "If you go to the richest schools, you will get more money and be able to hire great people," he explains, "but I want to bring the rich and poor together, as we did here. We already created one choir in a gang-run neighborhood, deep in the drug trade. I needed an armed escort. But I believe that music has the power to change society."
Mr. Isacoff is the author of "A Natural History of the Piano: The Instrument, the Music, the Musicians—From Mozart to Modern Jazz and Everything in Between" (Knopf).