“When you live from the truth of your purpose, you need not worry, and can know with certainty that you are always headed in the right direction.” Those words of wisdom come to us from Luke McEndarfer, Artistic Director of the the National Children’s Chorus (NCC).
Maestro McEndarfer will lead the NCC in a concert with the American Youth Symphony at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles on Feb. 25. Dedicated to the people of Ukraine, the concert, co-led by Maestro Carlos Izcaray, is dubbed “Voices of Peace.” It will feature a performance of Benjamin Britten’s challenging War Requiem.
Roots of the National Children’s Chorus
The GRAMMY® Award-winning NCC is committed to “eclectic programming, new music, world culture, and extraordinary collaborations.” Its history goes all the way back to the founding of the Paulist Choristers of Chicago in 1904. Today, as the National Children’s Chorus, it comprises more than 35 choirs and 1,000 students across eight U.S. cities. Programs start as early as age five and go up to college age, aiming to help choristers discover their voices – both literally and figuratively.
Maestro McEndarfer, who has helmed the NCC (and its precursor) since 2004, spoke with Blogcritics about how the chorus is standing with Ukraine through “Voices of Peace” and other events, as well as their recordings, the rest of the 2022-23 season, and his own perspective on helming one of the nation’s leading organizations in music education.
Please tell us a little about the upcoming performance of Britten’s War Requiem. What are its challenges and rewards? Has the NCC performed it in the past?
Benjamin Britten’s epic War Requiem was commissioned to mark the opening of a new cathedral for the city of Coventry in England, as the original medieval structure was destroyed by a WWII bombing raid in 1940. It is considered by many to be one of the greatest pieces of music ever written for chorus, soloists, and orchestra.
Combining the traditional Requiem Mass with poetry by Wilfrid Owen, the War Requiem not only pays homage to those who lost their lives in WWII but decries the atrocities of all human warfare throughout time.
For the National Children’s Chorus and American Youth Symphony, this performance wields extraordinary meaning and purpose, not only because it will be taking place exactly one year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but also since it is being performed entirely by a contingent of youthful performers. Roughly 400 young musicians will present this moving work, sending a powerful message about the kind of world they want to live in.
The challenges involved in programming this piece for musicians of any age include its notable difficulty and musical complexity; however, if the score is executed well, it has the potential of transporting the audience to a state of sublime mindfulness and self-realization.
The National Children’s Chorus has collaborated with the American Youth Symphony successfully on several occasions over the years, but never [before] attempted this monumental composition, which is usually handled by adult professional musicians.
The NCC’s support for Ukraine goes beyond this concert. Can you tell us about your collaboration with a Ukrainian children’s chorus?
Last May, the National Children’s Chorus sang at New York’s Lincoln Center in concert with the Zhayvir Choir, an ensemble of children from Lviv, Ukraine, led by director Natalia Kozyar. After training for months on separate continents, our two organizations performed half in-person, half virtually, with life-size projections transforming the interior walls of Alice Tully Hall into the streets of Lviv.
On that day, the children of our two countries sang together Eric Whitacre’s new treble arrangement of “Sing Gently as One,” a piece with words that echo the heartfelt sentiment of both groups.
As the NCC’s Artistic Director, it was such an honor to work with Natalia and we certainly intend to meet in person and perform together in the future.
Prior to beginning the song at our concert, Natalia was able to speak directly to our New York audience in a prerecorded video. Her words made everything we hear and see on the news extremely real and personal. It was clear that day how music itself is perhaps the most powerful medium through which we can create a kinder world. I think everyone in the building felt the intensity of that joint performance—truly, something we will never forget.
Facing Down the COVID-19 Pandemic
The NCC grew in several ways during the pandemic, even as most arts organizations cut back. How did you accomplish this?
Quite simply, we refused to let logistics and circumstances stand in the way of our organizational mission to educate and be a source of light in the lives of our students. In fact, we just became even more motivated, and doubled down on what we did and why we do it.
We spent no time complaining about the things we couldn’t do; instead, we focused all our creative energy on the things we could do. That meant pivoting drastically and immediately to create a curriculum and student experience that was optimized for the digital platforms we chose to use (primarily Zoom).
Knowing that we did not have control over the pandemic and seeing clearly that it was not something that would resolve quickly, I remember telling our team as we designed the all-new curriculum, “Don’t create these classes with the notion that all of this is temporary. I want you to pretend that we are never going back to in-person, and we will be training our students online forever—that’s how good the programming design needs to be.”
Obviously, nothing is forever, and in 2022, the NCC officially reopened its classrooms and concert halls. However, the deep commitment and care of our team to create the highest quality digital experiences during quarantine proved very powerful. I think the results speak for themselves when looking at our expansion in 2020 and 2021, which saw record levels of student enrollment and a growth factor of roughly 20%.
What are the benefits of all chapters learning the same music at the same time? Do local chapters actually exchange members?
Yes, exactly as stated—students are invited to be in any performance they wish across the country and they are trained to do so with the same repertoire, learned with the same phrasing, breath marks, dynamics, and musical execution coordinated by our national team of conductors.
This is one of the greatest features of the NCC—the ability of our students to perform in events of their choosing (locally, nationally, and internationally), with the opportunity to meet many other children who share their same passion for musical artistry.
Opera in the open
You started the Vail Opera Camp for NCC kids a few years ago. How is that project going, and how did the pandemic affect it?
The Vail Opera Camp will be in its third year this coming August, after two pilot years, where we performed Hans Krasa’s Brundibár and Ben Moore’s The Odyssey. We recently appointed NCC Alumnus and GRAMMY® nominee Johnathan McCullough as our new Opera Program Director, and he will be leading the effort this coming summer in a production of The Tinker of Tivoli, with music by Rossini.
The NCC’s Vail Opera Camp is an amazing opportunity for students to learn all about the world of opera, including the building of sets and props, stage management, acting, and conducting, in addition to vocal pedagogy and daily musical studies.
Of course, the program is set in one of the most beautiful geographic locations, with much time spent outdoors and in Vail Village located near the base of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.
Like all new programs, our Vail Opera Camp had to start somewhere, and in 2021 included roughly 30 students. This year we expect about 80 participants and are happy with that number as the program grows both in sophistication and scope.
Regarding how the pandemic affected it, I would say the pandemic inspired us to launch the opera camp. With international travel put on hold, we sought to create a rewarding musical experience for our students during the summer that would take place at a stunning outdoor location in the United States. After considering a few different options, we chose Vail and have been extremely happy with that decision.
You’ve performed and recorded the opera Brundibár, which itself has a fascinating history. What made this work especially meaningful to the NCC?
The NCC has always believed in the power of the human voice, and specifically in the power of our students’ voices to effect change. We teach them that what they say and do shapes the world around them on a daily basis. If used for good, we have seen time and time again that when people speak up and stand for truth, no injustice can withstand the force of their collective integrity.
The moral of the story in Brundibár is that when all the children raised their voices in song, they drowned out Brundibár’s ability to dominate and bully the young performers, who ultimately were able to raise the money and buy milk for their sick mother.
This past fall, we released a professionally mastered recording of this opera with the Lexicon label on Apple Music and Spotify. I think it’s one of the most extraordinary musical projects by youth that I’ve ever encountered because when you hear it, there is such a strong sense of technical and emotional synchronicity, almost as if the performers were together in the same room when they recorded it. To everyone’s dismay, however, the entire album was recorded by each performer alone on an iPhone in closets and bedrooms across the country, including the orchestra.
I would say this album is truly a product of the pandemic, and is an inspiring testament to the resilience of young people and what they created during one of the most challenging periods of their lives.
Holidays and Anniversaries
I understand the NCC will be recording a holiday album. Have there been other recording projects besides this one and Brundibár? How important is recording to the NCC’s overall educational programming?
The NCC will be recording its first holiday album this summer in London, and we will perform with Voces8 live in concert there on July 12. This holiday album and Brundibár will be our only two albums released to date. Looking ahead, we do plan on making recording a much bigger initiative at the National Children’s Chorus, with several projects already in the works.
You trained as a pianist and conductor. How did your career path take you to the leadership of a nationwide children’s choral organization?
The answer to this question cannot be summarized in a few sentences because there were literally thousands of moments that led me to where I am as I give this interview today. But I will say this: The entire journey has been an organic experience and more of a calling than anything else. Each day, I focus on what needs to be done, and then do those things. It’s similar to having the experience of not necessarily seeing where all the steps lead but maintaining faith in taking the next right step in your life each day.
I always teach my students that when you live from the truth of your purpose, you need not worry and can know with certainty that you are always headed in the right direction. As I prepare to celebrate my 20th anniversary with the company next year, I can attest to this truth and express deep gratitude for the many steps I have taken, and the many steps that still lie ahead.
Find out more about the National Children’s Chorus at their website.