Raising Young Voices

Ed. Note: To mark the tenth anniversary of Transient Glory, the Young People’s Chorus of New York’s ongoing commissioning, performance, and recording program, we’ve asked YPC Founder and Artistic Director Francisco Núñez to write about how this important initiative first got started and how it has continued to flourish as it enters its second decade.—FJO

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Years ago, the first question I would ask composers was, “Do you have any works for children’s chorus?”

Their answer was usually no. I would then ask why they hadn’t ever written for children’s chorus.

Their answer was always the same. “No one asked.”

Let’s start at the beginning. Back the late 1990′s, as the founder and artistic director of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, I was eager to create concert programs that would grow the number of people who came to our concerts—to expand the audience beyond the parents of our singers and reach out to other music lovers. I wanted to share with the public what I already knew and appreciated—that the sound of the children’s chorus was not only unique but also that young performers were capable of music-making of the highest quality. I likened it to a chamber ensemble—small in terms of the number of singers involved, it had a sound that was essentially more subtle; and an intimacy that highlighted a more fluid artistic interpretation underscoring the music’s poignancy.

However, attempting to attract a New York City audience to a children’s chorus concert has never been an easy task. Not only is there so much going on in our city, but being able to convince the “sophisticated” musicgoer to come to a concert where a bunch of kids are the main attraction is truly challenging.

I remember once asking an acquaintance about a concert at Carnegie Hall that she recently attended. She was an environmental engineer. Not a singer or musician, but she definitely appreciated a good concert. I asked her who was playing and what the music was. She didn’t know.

“Why did you go? ” I asked.

“It was Mozart and it sounded like it would be beautiful,” she said.

This acquaintance of mine, it turned out, did not know many other names except Beethoven. She did happen to love film music—she mentioned the music from The Red Violin and Psycho—but she did not know who composed them.

At that moment, a light went off in my head. If I could convince today’s living Mozarts to write for YPC and if I was able to somehow relay that information to the public, maybe the average lay person might come to a concert. I wanted music for children’s chorus—not edited or arranged pieces from the catalogue of boy’s choir or women’s chorus music. YPC is made up of boys and girls ages 12-18 from all backgrounds and diverse walks of life throughout New York City. I did find some music by wonderful composers like Vivaldi, Kodály, Britten, etc. Those who did have works, only had a handful of children’s chorus music, and some at best only one apiece. I especially wanted music from living composers for these unique voices that would fully appreciate the capabilities and possibilities of this amazing (and yes, fleeting) instrument; and that would resonate with the emotions that marked this particular age group.

I was most surprised that there was basically little to no children’s chorus music from today’s major composers–the ones who were winning the Pulitzers and MacArthurs, who were signed by publishing companies and being commissioned by dance companies, opera houses, orchestras, and films. I wanted to get them to write for children in a way that would help raise the bar of the children’s chorus. I wanted them to write serious, challenging music that would show the public that the children’s chorus was, indeed, an instrument to be reckoned with—and admired.

YPC was in residence at the 92nd Street Y from 1997 until 2010. In 2001, Ned Rorem was hosting “Ned Rorem Presents,” a series of five concerts dedicated to new music. Frederick Noonan, the director of the Y’s musical programs at the time, approached me on behalf of Michael Barrett, then-director of the Tisch Center of the Y, to conclude Ned’s musical series that season.

It turns out Ned Rorem was one of the few great composers who had written a song cycle for children’s chorus. It was commissioned by Doreen Rao and the Glenn Ellyn Children’s Chorus in consortium with the American Boy Choir and the Texas Boy’s Choir.

I told Fred and Michael of my concept of commissioning today’s most important composers to write new works specifically for children and to find an audience for them, and they jumped on the idea. I knew it could be done, because in 1996, I asked Morton Gould to collaborate with Phil Galdston and write a piece for us. There Are (No) Children There was the first and only piece Morton wrote for children’s chorus, and it would end up being his last. I was sad that he did not live long enough to be present at the première. Phil Galdston did attend.

For the concert, Ned Rorem would not only host, but would also lead a discussion with the featured composers, a music publisher, and a music impresario on the importance of children’s choral music in our society today. The concert would be called Transient Glory, which referred to the fleeting period when a child’s voice reveals a particular innocence and poignancy. So in effect, that is where Transient Glory, YPC’s commissioning program began.

I already had half the concert program etched out with incredible pieces by a whole range of composers, dead, living, and emerging, including both those in the public eye and those still unsung. But I needed to get the “big names” to write works for the concert. How could I convince them to write for this concert? It would prove to be a difficult task.

I did my best to convince Linda Golding, then president of Boosey & Hawkes, of the importance of the project, and to help me approach some of the world’s biggest names—and I had my list ready: John Corigliano, Steve Reich, John Adams, and John Williams. She tried. None of them bit. Many simply said that their schedules were too busy with other commissions. Others were more candid: they said they did not have any interest in this musical genre. Even Ned Rorem declined to write a new piece—he told me he already wrote one several years back and had no interest in writing another.

I was getting nervous that composers might be afraid that they would be stigmatized if they wrote for children. I needed to find a way to approach them and assure them that the chorus would indeed perform well and that others were interested in their music through this instrument.

The 92nd Street Y agreed to help YPC underwrite one of the commissions, and we received funding from the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust to underwrite another. I reached across the pond and then had my first big break, in England. The composer of the music for the funeral of Princess Diana had agreed to write a work for YPC—John Tavener. I was so excited about the news and immediately called Linda to say we had our first composer, and she used this as leverage with other composers. There was one particular composer who I thought was incredible and had written the music for the millennium celebration at Disney World—Michael Torke. He agreed. And then another success—the composer who wrote the music for the 1992 summer Olympic games in Sydney, Russian-born Elena Kats-Chernin, accepted the commission.

Linda agreed to join the panel discussion with Ned Rorem and Michael Torke, and then John Schaefer from WNYC agreed to be another guest. Finally, I thought we needed to plant a seed in the minds of the best composition students at Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music and have them consider writing for children’s chorus when they graduated. Composer Nils Vigeland at Manhattan School of Music recommended Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, and we finally had our program as follows:

Stephen Hatfield 
Odi Odi
Francis Poulenc 
Three Children’s Songs from Petites Voix

Ned Rorem 
What is Pink?

Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum
 Two Songs from e.e. cummings (world premiere*)

Claude Debussy 
Noel Des Enfants Qui N’Ont Plus De Maisons
Michael Torke 
Song of Ezekiel (world premiere*)
intermission
John Tavener 
Glory to God for This Transient Life (world premiere**)
Belá Bartók
 Bread Baking from 27 Choeurs Pour Voix D’Enfants
Nils Vigeland 
Some Seasons

Daniel Brewbaker
 Rushing at Times Like Flames from “Fields of Vision”
Francisco J. Núñez
 Tengo Sueno
and Criome Mi Madre from Four Spanish Lullabies
Elena Kats-Chernin 
Un-Labelled (world premiere*)
Zoltán Kodály 
Dancing Song
*Commissioned by the YPC

**Commissioned by the 92nd Street Y

The project started to attract attention from new audiences, and even The New York Times showed interest and sent a writer to attend the concert. A review didn’t run, but the Times subsequently wrote two feature stories on YPC and in 2004 the Times ran its first Transient Glory review, which interestingly, included Morton Gould’s There Are (No) Children Here in the program, along with premieres by Samuel Adler, Richard Rodney Bennett, Benjamin Lees, Judith Weir, Tod Machover, and Bright Sheng.

Transient Glory helped the children’s chorus movement gain even more ground. It grew into an annual series of concerts. Most years, the concert included only premieres. John Schaefer has hosted nearly every concert since 2002. WNYC has broadcast most of them and we have been fortunate to receive new works from over 60 composers to date, including John Corigliano and Steve Reich, and in 2007 Ned Rorem finally agreed to contribute a new work—his second—to the world of children’s chorus, entitled Afternoon on a Hill.

This year, Transient Glory celebrates 10 years of concerts and programs. In 2001, we were lucky to fill the 900 seats at the Y; today Transient Glory music is heard in over 90 cities through “Radio Radiance” broadcasts, an expansion of Transient Glory pieces written expressly for performance on radio and broadcast on American Public Media’s “Performance Today.”

We actually began celebrations of Transient Glory’s 10th anniversary in October in a Le Poisson Rouge performance with the Kronos Quartet, where we reprised Terry Riley’s Another Secret eQuation (which we initially premiered with the Kronos on their Perspective Series at Carnegie Hall) and joined them for the world premiere of Michael Gordon’s Exalted. I can’t tell you how good the chorus and I felt when, following the performance, David Harrington remarked, “Nothing beats a premiere with the Young People’s Chorus of New York City.”

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Through the years, Transient Glory has been able to break through many barriers and make the public realize the importance that young people can have in today’s music scene. In fact, it is no longer uncommon for many youth choruses to commission established and emerging composers. Nor is it as difficult. Many serious concert composers no longer balk at the idea of writing a piece for children, nor do they think that writing for children is beneath them. Interestingly, the YPC singers eventually begin to follow their favorite composers, becoming their Facebook fans and including this new music on their iPods.

Another novel concept is that of sharing the Transient Glory brand name among various music publishers. Previously, a publisher would hardly agree to use the same artwork or brand that another has used. But the importance of spreading the word to the choral community has overridden that. The Transient Glory series, with the help of Boosey & Hawkes, who has spearheaded this work since its inception, together with G. Schirmer, Chester/Novello, UE, and Hal Leonard, are all working together and using the Transient Glory name to help promote the composers’ works. This concerted effort is helping to make the music available for other choirs all over the world to perform. In addition, YPC has sung multiple performances of the works on tour and has recorded them on the Vital Records label. We also have been busy promoting the concept through workshops in the hope that others will perform these works.

We will end the 10th Transient Glory anniversary in a very big way by partnering with Carnegie Hall and Chorus America in a 2011 Transient Glory Symposium of new choral music: studying and performing the works of nine Transient Glory composers alongside their instrumental chamber works. Conductors, composers, students, and music lovers from around the country will gather in New York City to learn about these works and to immerse themselves in a week of music making.

I’d like to think that the Transient Glory series has helped create a new chapter of music for composers, publishers, the media, audiences, and of course the singers. I believe all who sing these great works are transformed. These composers write wonderful music. I cannot choose my favorite because there are so many incredible pieces to love and sing again. The past two summers, for example, YPC toured Japan giving 33 concerts including the 2001 Michael Torke piece, as well as works by Meredith Monk, Gabriela Lena Frank, Robert Kapilow, Michael Gordon, NEA jazz masters Paquito D’Rivera and Yoshiko Akiyoshi, and Japanese composer Ko Matsushita. The chorus received standing ovations from the usually reserved Japanese audiences. In March we travel to Chicago for the American Choral Director Association’s National Conference, and our program will include Transient Glory pieces written for YPC by John Corigliano, Gabi Frank, and Meredith Monk. Today, we continue to commission new works, with plans to premiere works by Michael Harrison, Tania Leon, and Missy Mazzoli.

When a composer we commission for Transient Glory asks for the limitations of the children, I say there are none. I do show them the range, as you would for any instrument, and talk about how many vocal parts work best. I ask that they write as though they were writing their very best piece and that they use text that a young person can relate to. I can happily say that through this series, we have inspired, commissioned, and performed what I believe will become a staple of masterworks for children’s choruses in the future.

What is most wonderful is that today, when I ask composers to write a new work, they usually say yes.