Thursday, May 12, 2011

Transient Glory gets a 10!

Just intonation or extended vocal technique are terms you don’t expect to hear at a typical youth chorus concert, but last Friday’s Transient Glory® X at the 92nd Street Y was not your typical youth chorus concert. Nor is the Young People’s Chorus of New York City™ your typical youth choir. This year it celebrates ten years of YPC’s Transient Glory® project begun by Founder and Artistic Director Francisco Núñez in 2001. In those ten years, the project has accumulated nearly 60 new works for children’s chorus by some of the most prominent composers around the world, including those whose music were performed last Friday: Michael Torke, Paquito D’Rivera, John Corigliano, Meredith Monk, David Del Tredici, and Michael Harrison, whose Hijaz for voice, just intonation piano, cello and percussion received its world premiere at the Y.

This is the basic premise of the Transient Glory® project: that a child’s voice is a unique instrument during that fleeting time between childhood and after-childhood (that momentous transition which many of the composers addressed in some form or another), and that this instrument can tackle the most challenging and uncompromising music written for them, if such music were available.

Transient Glory® promised to deliver, and Friday’s concert--one of ten anniversary events given throughout the year, culminating in a national symposium in New York next winter at Carnegie Hall--was the showcase of those ten years.  WNYC’s John Schaefer, YPC’s “crazy uncle” (in his words) who had hosted performances since 2001, opened the concert by remarking, “Ten years ago, when I first hosted this concert, I didn’t see this coming.” Neither, it seems, did anyone else, and there was a general atmosphere of astonishment and perhaps some well-deserved self-congratulations throughout the evening. After all, it took Francisco Núñez many hoops to jump in order to convince composers, the industry, and the public that his vision would work—let alone survive. Suffice it to say that eventually Mr. Núñez did manage to convert the skeptics, including Mr. Schaefer himself, who remembered receiving a phone call from Mr. Núñez one day ten years ago and exclaiming, “You managed to get who???” Since then, he said, he continues to express amazement that Transient Glory® has amassed “an incredible list of composers since year one.”
Friday night’s program, in a way, also celebrated the people who turned around and became the project’s champions. “I keep coming back year after year because this chorus keeps astonishing me,” said Mr. Schaefer. During a panel discussion there was a lot of nostalgic remembrance about those times, when the idea of a major composer writing a piece for children’s voices was not exactly something people jumped on. “Ten years ago we were sitting here and wondering what we had just done,” recalled Linda Golding, who was then president of Boosey & Hawkes. Boosey & Hawkes agreed to partner with YPC to publish all Transient Glory® commissions and make them available to the rest of the world. It was quite a revelation, said Ms. Golding, when they all realized that most composers had not written for children simply because they were not asked.

During the panel discussion, Mr. Schaefer questioned whether Transient Glory® contributed to the changes in performance practice over the past ten years. Mr. Núñez recalled that when the chorus first got Torke’s Song of Ezekiel (a moving piece which has the distinction of being the first Transient Glory® commission), the score was handwritten and difficult to decipher, heightening what may be called a first-timer’s jitters. That early piece, that seemed so cutting edge at the time, now feels mainstream.  “This really is the new century, and fear of new music is gone,” said Frank Oteri, founder of NewMusicBox and a composer himself, adding that today, young people can play new music, and “nothing is hard anymore.”

I’m guessing that what he meant was that today, everybody is up for the challenge. The concert’s repertoire showed to what extent these singers--members of YPC’s Concert Chorus-- could stretch the limit.  The chorus opened the concert with Song of Ezekiel and then performed Tembandumba, Paquito D’Rivera’s rollicking and physically demanding work.   Based on the poem Majestad Negra by the largely unsung genius of Boriqua poetry Luis Pales Matos, Tembandumba is a heavily percussive and tongue-twisting homage to a colossally endowed mulata whose very presence drives all she passes wild with desire.  The highly suggestive language was largely invented by Pales Matos, who was known to create portmanteaux and onomatopoeic devices in his poetry, virtually presaging hip-hop and rap (the poet lived from 1898-1959). In Friday’s performance, the otherwise provocative content of the poem was translated into innocent wonder and awe by the singers, giving the piece an entirely new and unexpected layer, and an energy that deserved the rousing applause it received.
To witness the entire evening’s performance is to marvel at the scope of the repertoire, and the seemingly endless range of these singers’ talent. John Corigliano’s One Sweet Morning, in commemoration of 9/11, is plaintive and lyrical but never sentimental. As the composer himself said, he made “no concessions to the fact that these are young musicians.” He added that the problem with writing technically challenging pieces is that performers focus more on the difficulty than the interpretation, “but Francisco and the kids went way beyond the music.” The full 30-minute work, with additional texts, will be premiered by the New York Philharmonic this September to commemorate 9/11’s tenth anniversary.

Meredith Monk’s work, "Things Heaven and Hell" from Three Heavens and Hells, demanded that the singers “extend the instrument,” using Tennessee Reed’s verses for their sonic value rather than meaning, as Mr. Schaefer explained to the audience. I heard this work premiered live on WNYC two years ago with Ms. Monk herself performing with the children, and I’ve heard it several times since, but I still marvel at the sheer vocal acrobatics this piece demands and have often wondered how such young artists could perform such a vocally complex work. David Del Tredici’s Four Heartfelt Anthems closed the first half of the program, with the chorus joined by YPC alumni, teaching staff, and soprano Courtenay Budd, whose performance of the fourth anthem, based on a poem by Robert Burns, was uplifting and ethereal. The work, filled with nostalgic remembrance, was introduced with an email sent by the composer to Mr. Núñez, in which Mr. Del Tredici called YPC “diabolically skilled, so virtuosic and so heartfelt that to hear them is to remember how thrilling music can be.”

The second half of the program, following the panel discussion, was the world premiere of Michael Harrison’s Hijaz, which Mr. Schaefer introduced as “one of those pieces that, yes, is supposed to sound that way.” The work used extended just intonation, copiously explained by the composer in the program notes. Mr. Harrison wrote the poem for the piece himself and remarked that he was inspired to write something for YPC that he hoped would inspire them in return.  For this work, the chorus was joined by two exceptional musicians, in addition to Mr. Harrison at the piano:  cellist Maya Beiser, whose fiery performance was nothing short of electric, and Payton MacDonald (who also performed in Tembandumba), a founding member of the jaw-dropping group Alarm Will Sound (and one of my favorite ensembles of all time—full disclosure).  This 20-minute work, which takes the listener on a trance-like journey through the Middle East, Africa, Moorish Spain and the Indian Subcontinent—virtually the entire trajectory of the history of Gitano music, flamenco, and other related forms—was lyrical despite its complexity. It began with theatrical flourish--soloists Lindsay Bogaty, a YPC alumna, and Nia Drummond, a current chorister, walking from the back of the hall towards the stage, singing the work’s theme like a pair of celestial heralds--and ended with a single extended note that was literally breathtaking.  It was no surprise that the work was met with shouts of “Beautiful! Beautiful!” from the audience, as well as a 15-minute standing ovation.

Transient Glory® can be said to be the pinnacle of YPC’s programming, both artistic and educational. This is the litmus test of all those years of training. The works sung here are unflinchingly complex and challenging, not just for young singers but for any musical artist.  The singers do justice and honor to the astonishing talent of these composers—by being themselves astonishing. If anybody asks what makes YPC different from other choruses in the city or the world, one might well point to Transient Glory® and those ten years when it sought out the best composers and challenged them to write music for this group of singers—to dare these young singers, in effect, to break musical barriers and at the same time discover the power of their own voices.

I feel pretty certain that this self-discovery will be what these singers will look back on most fondly in their adult years. During the panel discussion, Mr. Núñez said that “something happens from year to year,” alluding not just to the evolution of the young singers in this group (whose line-up perpetually changes as the children grow older and leave) but also (and I am guessing here) the sea-change that happens to the conductor and listeners as well. “The children leave something behind,” he said. “I don’t know what it is, but children are able to communicate in a way we have forgotten to do.” – Eric G.: 5/9/11

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