There was ample intoxication in downtown Napa on Saturday evening, in the spirits and sounds of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, as the group performed in the bucolic outdoor amphitheater of the Culinary Institute of America at Copia.
YPC, now in its 35th year, delightfully closed the first week of Festival Napa Valley’s summer season. It was conducted joyously by Francisco J. Nuñez, who founded the ensemble when he was barely older than these teenage singers.
Aside from age, this group showcases diversity with regard to race, nationality, and body type. Similarly variegated is its repertoire, with the Saturday program’s opener, the Kyrie from Mozart’s Missa brevis in D Major, K. 194 (written in 1774, when the composer was 18), proving something of an outlier. The “eleison” in the movement, though sincerely delivered, seemed at odds with the balmy atmosphere and the graceful background of well-tended trees, rising behind the 42 choristers and their accompanying instrumentation of piano, cello, and violin (occasionally doubling on percussion).
Several fine sopranos and tenors had solo step-outs, as they would throughout the concert. Nuñez has pointed out that “the voice parts are very fluid,” but it seemed that baritone and bass voices were less in evidence, with no detriment to quality.
With its second number, folk songs of indigenous people arranged by Brazilian choir leader Marcos Leite, the chorus changed both genre and language and deployed finger snaps, bird whistles, and the sounds of a thunderstorm and swayed with the rhythm. For a setting of chorister Ana Maria Griffin Morimoto’s text “De la boca,” by composer Julia Wolfe (who was present), the language shifted to Spanish. In another of YPC’s trademarks, soloists and smaller ensembles stepped forward in brief segments of the delightfully arranged piece.
The liveliness lingered and expanded through five sections from Gordon Getty’s Young America (2004, recorded a year later on Pentatone). Several of the performing boys had appeared as Brookfield School students in Getty’s 2021 filmed opera, Goodbye, Mr. Chips. The composer’s trademark quizzically chromatic reshapings of expected melodic movement were engagingly conveyed by this endemically extroverted ensemble, its tonality true through the alternative harmonizations, interestingly structured as a sort of double duet in the “Heather Mary” section, a pair of girls “addressing” a pair of the boys. With one exception, Getty also penned the lyrics to these sections, including the brief personal recollection “My Uncle’s House,” playfully evoked by the young singers.
For “Daughter of Asheville,” violinist Emma Hathaway stepped out to accompany coupled choristers waltzing and singing in 6/8 time, this composer’s tangy melodies and occasional open-fifth voicings painting a pretty picture of young romance. His years matching the 88 chromatic steps of a keyboard, Getty rose from his place to smilingly acknowledge the sustained approbation from his fellow audience members after the finish of his fun setting of Stephen Vincent Benét’s “When Daniel Boone Goes by at Night.”
Lester Lynch, a frequent collaborator with YPC, soloed on “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” arranged in part by Lynch and Noam Faingold. Lynch’s burnished baritone worked well against the high massed voices of the youth, modulating ever upward on verse after verse. He returned later, for “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” arranged by Faingold and Peter J. Wilhousky. The chorus again followed the emotive Lynch in good order, on into the slowed final verse and its fortissimo finish.
Nuñez spoke of his admiration for the recently deceased Stephen Sondheim before leading a medley from Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, arranged by Matt Podd and very much fitting the YPC in terms of place and age. The contributions of the ensemble’s principal choreographer, Jacqueline Bird, were dramatically showcased here, particularly in the excerpts of “I Feel Pretty” and “America.” The segues from song to song and from soloist to tutti were well handled. Soprano Mikayla Sager and tenor Mario Chang joined the ensemble, Chang sounding particularly polished.
The quiet, modal sound of “Mo Li Hua,” a Chinese folk song arranged vocally by Chen Yi and instrumentally by Nuñez, was an impressive changeup, but the harmonic and melodic purity was pleasantly presented and enhanced by the placement of the violin at the rear of the amphitheater at the beginning of the piece and the placid movement of the girl choristers, with large orange fans serving also as percussion. “Take Me to the Water,” by Rollo Dilworth, incorporated quotes from several African American spirituals. The boys executed athletic choreography; the girls paraded with white gossamer parasols.
Festival favorite and former Miss America Nia Imani Franklin sweetly sang a brief a cappella sample of gospel from her hometown Baptist church, to introduce the world premiere of her composition Polaris. Melodically and lyrically simple but meaningful, the piece ended with a recitation of the names of victims of racism, some familiar, some overlooked by the media. A standing ovation earned an encore with Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” arranged by Kirby Shaw with lucent voicings and extra peppiness appropriate to these singers.
For this reviewer, this is the most kinetically exciting species of chorus I’ve ever seen, apart from a Broadway or movie musical. The group is living proof of the purpose and power of music in the personhood of young people. And its ability to embrace difference inspires as much as it entertains.
A quarter of YPC’s full complement of 2,000 students, age 8 to 18, is represented in AloneTogether, a multimedia exhibition in the lobby of the CIA at Copia throughout the festival. Involving poetry, sculpture, and film as well as music, the exhibition examines the lives of children impacted by lockdown, global turmoil, and transformative activism over the past few years.