[Opera News] Alive and Kicking

Conductor Francisco Núñez’s Young People’s Chorus of New York City Has Awakened Generations Of Young Talent To The Joys Of Singing And Teamwork

By Joshua Rosenblum 

Francisco Núñez conducts the Young People’s Chorus of New York City at the Rose Theater in Manhattan, 2018  © Stephanie Berger

Francisco Núñez conducts the Young People’s Chorus of New York City at the Rose Theater in Manhattan, 2018
© Stephanie Berger

FRANCISCO NÚÑEZ, the charismatic founder and artistic director of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, is clearly a realist. “This is going to be an extraordinarily boring piece if it’s sung badly,” he tells a group of choristers. “It’s going to be pure torture. You can use your voice for evil, or you can use it for good.” 

Núñez is in rehearsal with the Concert Chorus, his top ensemble of about sixty high-school-age female singers, which is one of YPC’s seven subgroups. “Now,” he continues, “you know the notes. What can you do to make us not fall asleep?” “Dynamics?” someone suggests tentatively. “Good!” Núñez says. They try the passage again. “Crescendo, crescendo, crescendo, crescendo!” Núñez exhorts, as he runs from one end of the group to the other. The results are impressive: suddenly, it’s a very exciting rendition.

Breathing is next. “It’s all about breath,” Núñez says. He makes fun of their breathing, the way it interrupts the phrases: “I am honored (breath) to be witness (breath) to so much (breath) majesty.” In an effort to make the phrases less choppy, he asks two girls to come to the front and dance the phrases while the rest of the group sings. He knew whom to pick: the two perform with slow, graceful, balletic movements while the others sing, inspiring a sound of remarkable beauty and sensitivity.  

Although the atmosphere is lighthearted, this is serious business for Núñez and his young artists. “The admiration we have for our young people in sports, for our young people as prodigies when they perform with the Philharmonic at age thirteen—why can’t that admiration be for a children’s choir? That was my goal,” says Núñez, who founded the Young People’s Chorus in 1988.

“With a children’s choir, you first start doing little ditties—three-minute song here, three-minute song there, applause, applause, applause,” Núñez says. “You need to get the audience to understand that there’s a different way of involvement. That’s what we’ve been able to do. So they know they’re going to have a concert that’s not just ‘My child is singing.’ The majority of our audience is not necessarily parents. People leave our concerts going, ‘Wow! You’ve really gotta see this!’ 

“And now we’re actually venturing into opera as well,” he continues, with evident pride. “We did Ben Moore’s Odyssey at the Met Museum in November. And we’re about to do a piece by Jonathan Dove, The Monster in the Maze, for young people and adults and full orchestra. It’s a very serious opera, some really impressive stuff.” 

Núñez in rehearsal  © Jillian Haynes/YPC

Núñez in rehearsal
© Jillian Haynes/YPC

NÚÑEZ, FIFTY-THREE, was born in New York City and grew up in the Dominican Republic and New York’s Washington Heights. As a piano-performance major at NYU, he spent a semester student-teaching at the Third Street Music School. Observing the way the school’s ethnically diverse students were unified by making music together was a turning point for Núñez, and it became the impetus for his establishment of what became the Young People’s Chorus. 

Núñez’s vision and unflagging, long-term efforts have resulted in some top awards: he was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2011 and Musical America’s Educator of the Year for 2018. But these awards have not merely honored his music-making; they acknowledge his ambitious work in using music to build communities and bring disparate groups of young people together. 

“This chorus was created based on a membership that was very diverse,” Núñez says. “The majority of people in many organizations are either going to be different kinds of middle class, different kinds of poor or different kinds of rich. However, when you have the extremes of both poor and rich coming together, you now have different kinds of issues. How can you reach all of them at the same time?”

THIS LEADS TO A DISCUSSION of the prominent composers YPC has commissioned to write for the group. “When I first started, most of the pieces were written for adults, a long time ago, based on religious texts. And they were dummified for children. And the music that was written for young people was usually written by an educator trying to teach them a technique. So I went to today’s major composers and asked, would they write for young people, for a young urban child? I mean, our children are getting themselves home, taking care of themselves, going through all of the emotions of life. And then on top of that in school they’re doing very major work, creating robots and doing trig. So why should they be singing about bunnies? Or singing of religion without really understanding what the words mean? So when I worked with the composers, the idea was ‘How do you give a young urban child an opportunity to actually emote something musically?’ That’s beyond the notes.” 

The list of composers who have written pieces for YPC is long and impressive, with names such as Charles Wuo-rinen, John Corigliano, Joan Tower, Paquito D’Rivera, Steve Reich, Michael Nyman, Mark Adamo and Ned Rorem. When asked to mention some of the standout pieces, Núñez names one by Michael Torke. “He was the first one,” Núñez says. “His piece we sang for years and years. It was like rock-and-roll in the classical world. It was Song of Ezekiel, so his text was ‘Bring down the high tree, bring up the low tree.’His idea of reaching this kind of diversity we have was to use texts that made sense to the young people.

 “Then we have David Del Tredici. His piece was taking a very simple children’s verse—‘Monday’s child is full of grace, Tuesday’s child is something,’ and the last one, ‘Sunday’s child is blithe and gay.’ Or, as he sets it, ‘Blithe and gay and gay and gay and gay, and Sunday’s child is gay and gay and gay and gay.’ You could not sing this in certain states,” he observes drily. “But our children loved it. They sang the heck out of it. But what it does is that it immediately says, ‘I believe in you as a musician.’”

Believing in young people, and reaching out to as many of them as possible—whether through music or not—is clearly the overarching idea. YPC claims to have a membership of 1,700 students, a statistic that requires some clarification. “We’re divided into three different circles,” Núñez says. “The first circle is the core program, which is where you are right now, which is our after-school program. It’s about 425 young people, ages eight to eighteen.” 

We are in YPC’s office/rehearsal complex on West 65th Street, where the organization takes up an entire floor. “And there’s a group called Community Chorus Program. They gave their concert yesterday, and we have about 120 of them. Then we have our Satellite School Choruses program, which is where I just was. We’re in eighteen schools around the city. I just came from working with a major high school, and they’re doing their concert tomorrow afternoon. There’s a thousand, eleven hundred in that one. So that’s where the seventeen hundred comes from.

“Then after that, we’re national.” Núñez is on a roll. “We’ve got a choir in New Jersey, Austin, Minnesota, Dominican Republic, and we’ve inspired choirs that are part of the Berlin Philharmonic and London Philharmonic. So we’re growing, and we’re going to create more choirs around the country.” It’s not surprising that Núñez’s compelling message is spreading.

The organization’s reach extends well beyond its musical performance activities: YPC also offers homework help, SAT and ACT tutoring, college application guidance and assistance with preparing audition tapes (including an onsite recording studio). A recent grant now provides for private voice lessons and occasional master classes. And YPC is not only Núñez’s life work; it is also, for the past twelve years, a family affair: Elizabeth Núñez, his wife, is YPC’s associate artistic director, as well as the creator and director of the Cantare chorus, a YPC subgroup consisting of girls plus boys with unchanged voices. 

“We met through music,” Francisco says. “She was a conductor, I was a conductor. She actually came here and started working. It wasn’t until years later—it was professional for a while.” Their son, Sebastían, nine, is in the Prelude chorus (the youngest group, for eight- to ten-year-olds), and their daughter, Sabrina, six, seems sure to follow suit.

Conceiving, rehearsing and conducting events—not to mention overseeing the entire operation—would seem to be more than enough work to occupy one person, especially considering that Núñez often orchestrates the pieces for his concerts as well, as he did for YPC’s holiday concert last December at Carnegie Hall. I point out that this in itself is a full-time job, which could easily be farmed out, but Núñez responds, “No, but no one else can do it. I know how I want it to go, I know what kind of sounds I want, and the music that we do is very eclectic.”

The YPC members in  The Odyssey  at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2017  © Stephanie Berger

The YPC members in The Odyssey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2017
© Stephanie Berger

AT THE CONCERTS, the feeling of pride among these young singers is palpable. YPC’s thirtieth-anniversary gala concert, on March 5 at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater, was dazzling, with exciting, well-chosen repertoire that included the Baroque (Purcell); Broadway (songs from Once on This IslandAnastasia and Ragtime, all written by the evening’s guest hosts, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty); contemporary classical (an infectious Michael Gordon piece called “To Sing”); and a spiritual (“He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” with guest soloist Lester Lynch); plus an original work by Núñez himself and an ingeniously devised “Gotta Dance” medley that covered everything from Irving Berlin to Lady Gaga. 

The galvanized, always stylistically appropriate singing from YPC’s six component groups in various combinations was enhanced by costumes, impressive choreography, integrated lighting design, a fifteen-piece orchestra and a jaw-dropping level of organization that managed to move various permutations of the 425 kids on- and offstage and around the auditorium with seemingly military-level precision. The audience was clearly thrilled, and it seemed to thrill the kids in turn that they could evoke this response. As one long-time supporter, a self-described “true believer,” put it, “This is the best organization in New York.” 

To read the article on Opera News click here.