Young Women's Choral Projects - "Grace"
Young Women's Choral Projects performing "Boundless Grace" in Grace Cathedral | Courtesy of YMCP

“Boundless Grace,” Saturday’s program by San Francisco’s Young Women’s Choral Projects, referred not only to its venue (Grace Cathedral) but also to the group’s mission and the theme of the program — young women overcoming challenges through music and creativity. Challenges there were: five languages, difficult music from the 10th to the 21st century, and the tricky acoustics of the cathedral. The stars of the show, the young singers of YWCP’s premier ensemble, met those challenges and more with remarkable discipline, skill, and — yes — grace.

The musicians inhabited nearly all parts of the cathedral — the aisles, a chapel at the west end, in the nave behind the audience, and at times a more traditional set of risers. The pews were gone, leaving the nave open for what was both a theater for the singers and a stage for some fine young dancers, trainees at the San Francisco Ballet School who added their expressive movement to a number of songs.

Young Women's Choral Projects - "Grace"
Young Women's Choral Projects and dancers from the SF Ballet School performing "Boundless Grace" in Grace Cathedral | Courtesy of YMCP

The intricate choreography of dance, song, and instrumental music was spearheaded by YWCP’s founding director, Susan McMane, now retiring after 10 years of artistic leadership. McMane’s musical and theatrical imagination turned a diverse collection of choral works into a woman-centered journey of wonder, sorrow, praise, and hope.

Susan McMane
YWCP founder Susan McMane | Credit: Joseph Fanvu

The chorus sang entirely from memory, no small feat for over an hour of music. As might be expected of such young voices, the dynamic range was somewhat constrained, but pitch, diction, and tone were excellent. Occasionally the choir moved too far from the nave, as with an “Ave Verum” sung from the distant Chapel of Grace — lovely, but rather muffled — or a motet for two choirs that put the singers too far from each other, at the expense of precision.

A chamber ensemble supported the choir in some of the selections. Flutist Christy Kim and harpist Chloe Tula provided an interlude for dancers with Christoph Gluck’s lovely “Dance of the Blessed Spirits.” Two movements from a Luigi Boccherini flute quintet were sprightly, although I could not see how they related to the program as a whole.

Young Women's Choral Projects - "Grace"
Young Women's Choral Projects and dancers from the SF Ballet School performing "Boundless Grace" in Grace Cathedral | Courtesy of YMCP

A wealth of contemporary compositions provided some of the best music. Christine Donkin’s Magnificat featured three splendid (and very poised) soprano soloists (Emma Yin, Marybeth Ong, and Sonia Banker) singing the words of the young Virgin Mary.

“Reflections From Yad Vashem” by Daniel J. Hall cast a darker vision with its recitation of names of children killed in the Holocaust, alternating with psalms in Hebrew and a beautiful lullaby in Yiddish. A solo viola (Meena Bhasin) served as a powerful voice of both sorrow and endurance.

“Boundless,” a contemporary work by Katerina Gimon, was one of the most challenging of McMane’s selections. The singers moved boldly on stage, directly in front of the audience, for a text-less and often aleatory (that is, randomly improvised) exploration of rhythm and pitch.

Mia Makaroff’s “Spes (Hope),” from 2020, combined texts in Latin with a poem in the Sami language of Lappland. The chorus elegantly conveyed life’s fragility and the need to continue to hope despite uncertainty.

Some noisy fireworks from Saturday’s Lunar New Year celebration unexpectedly accompanied the music, appropriately marking the rebirth of hope and strength. The booms reminded me of an Evensong in Canterbury Cathedral eight years ago when girl choristers sang there for the first time. Their beautiful singing was punctuated by a massive thunderstorm and clatters of hail on the stained-glass windows, but the dean assured us that this was merely a nod of divine approval for ending the long tradition of men-only singing in holy spaces. Be it so!

Young Women's Choral Projects - "Grace"
Young Women's Choral Projects perform "Boundless Grace" in Grace Cathedral | Courtesy of YMCP

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