Essential Movement: Young People’s Chorus of New York City in Murfreesboro

I am a choral music nerd. It is a tradition I was raised in and the foundation of my education is as a musician. Most of all, choral music was my first real love. I likely would never have pursued music at all without it. As more and more time-tested choral institutions financially go under and fade out of operation, a concert from a real choir of high caliber is becoming a rare occurrence. Of course, when a future-educator friend tells me one such choir is giving a free performance in the Nashville area Friday evening, I have to make time to witness. So, after leaving work, I made my way to St. Mark’s United Methodist in Murfreesboro; the church where Young People’s Chorus of New York City (YPC) and their national off-shoot, Concinamus, gave enriching workshops for the Tennessee ACDA state conference earlier in the day. I could not be happier that I did.

The Young People’s Chorus of New York City

The program included a vast array of works that highlighted the sweeping diversity of cultures and sounds represented in the choral tradition. Featured were pieces inspired by everything from the Ojibwe origin of dreamcatchers, to Justin Timberlake, to Zulu folksong, ripping Gospel, and the very streets of New York City; each exquisitely performed by an incredible group of musicians, none over the age of 18. Perfect displays of musicality like the ethereal Liminality (A Breath of Epiphany) by YPC Director Francisco J. Núñez or Ellen Reid’s emotionally charged So Much On My Soul were punctuated by crowd pleasing, fully choreographed renditions of Timberlake’s Can’t Stop the Feeling and Abba hits, Dancing Queen and Mamma Mia. Even delivering a sing-along of Luigi Denza’s Funiculi, Funicula, the concert carried a perfect balance of expressive excellence and gleeful entertainment.

YPC premiered two works in this performance I would be remiss not to mention. The first, No More Bad Dreams by Bruce Adolphe, is a retelling of how the dreamcatcher was created; an Ojibwe story in which a Grandmother saves the life of a spider. To thank her, the spider teaches her to spin a magic web that will catch bad dreams and let good dreams pass. The piece features quasi-recitative passages that can be exceptionally difficult to execute cleanly in a choral setting, and YPC sang them flawlessly. The rest of the work is punctuated with spoken word narration telling the story in full text, which ultimately kept me from really falling in love with the piece. They were well performed, but there is a interruptive quality to them that seems to derail the musical direction as a whole. Adolphe’s setting was beautiful at its most essential and provided a vivid and climactic musical painting of the story. It just didn’t seem fully integrated across the spoken sections and back into the sung portions. The disruption created by large chunks of speaking, at times, left the story feeling rushed and deflated some of the more engulfing moments too quickly. The second premier piece was Whispers by frequent YPC collaborator Jim Papoulis. An exploration into communities, the exchange of ideas, and the creation of beautiful music by such exchanges; the piece gets the job done quite beautifully. It was intimate at times, incredibly lush at others, and over all comforting and profoundly gorgeous. In the hands of the young artists of YPC, it held a really touching power. I only wish some of the texture of the piece had been wider. The work pulls on a fairly subdued pallet of sounds, and it seems that a piece taking on such a brave concept as unity, especially in todays world, deserves a braver range of musical ideas.

At the center of YPC’s impressive performing strength is an emphasis on movement; the idea that truly expressive and beautiful singing comes from the complete freeing of the body, and that musical movement is cultivated through physical movement. It is a concept I am  familiar with through my own training, and am a firm believer in. The heavy use of choreography that to outside eyes may read as campy, or “Choralography” as some colleagues of mine have affectionately referred to it, is often so much more than a visual effect or showy gimmick. It is a way to allow the body to respond to music, and create audibly expressive singing. It is such a treat to see a choir embracing that with such enthusiasm and precision as YPC has, and the results show. But, beyond that, some moments of the July 27 performance got me thinking about balancing the approach as a whole. At what point does movement go from essential to inhibiting? When does full choreography become a crutch rather than a necessary reinforcement and creative tool? Of course, I am not referring to the energetic dance moves of a Timberlake song, or the jaw dropping precision choreography that accompanied YPC’s Gershwin medley, I Got Gershwin. It is something more subtle. It is the notable difference when the smooth, flowing, and relaxing movement employed on Liminality or the very intentional vocal affect of doubling over during So Much On My Soul is compared to lying crumpled on the stage floor in the same piece. The former two reinforce the core support mechanisms of singing and create an expressive affect to the voice, where the latter, when taken on by young performers even with such talent, audibly undercuts the substance of the sound they produce. It simply raises a question: in a choral setting, should a performative gesture be kept if it undermines the sound quality of the ensemble. It’s a question that would take volumes to explore, but the attention to detail and exceptional skill level of YPC brings it right to the front. Their emphasis falls on perpetual motion, and the vast majority of the time that emphasis works overwhelmingly in their favor.

Truly enhancing, truly worthwhile concerts inspire either joy or thought. The highest level performances do both. Choral music has such a natural disposition to nuance. It can be explosively dense or it can be breathtakingly tender. To deliver all of this it takes a choir that is careful, precise, passionate, and willing to stretch to that next level; it takes a real choir. That is exactly what an audience can expect from the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, and it is so inspiring to witness. I just might have to find somewhere to sing again.

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