San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
With love and firmness, Daisy Newman taught young musicians to succeed.
A chorus of young singers, ranging in age from 8 to 18, drawn from some of the most povertystricken neighborhoods of the Bay Area, raise their voices in harmony, delivering a range of repertoire encompassing both jazz and classical offerings.
Then they leave their risers, move to seats at the front of the stage, and pick up their instruments. Because these kids are not only a chorus. They’re an orchestra, too.
Since 2013, when it parted ways with UC Berkeley’s Young Musicians Program and went out on its own, the Young Musicians Choral Orchestra has been creating musical and educational opportunities for disadvantaged youths. It’s an organization with a powerful multiple mission — part conservatory, part psychological support system, part economic lifeline.
That agenda reflects, above all, the fingerprints of the organization’s founder and longtime executive director, Daisy Newman, who died on Feb. 10, at 74.
A trained operatic soprano with a short but starry professional career (she worked closely with conductors Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa), Newman ultimately found her calling as an educator and arts administrator, first in New York and Detroit and ultimately in the East Bay.
“She was an incredible force of nature wherever she’d been,” said Oakland Symphony Music
Director Michael Morgan, who has often drawn from the ranks of the YMCO for soloists. “She ran into every imaginable roadblock in her career, but she was a tough lady.”
The programming at YMCO has thrived on Newman’s combination of empathy and unstoppable determination. The organization provides free music lessons during the school year, culminating in a multiweek summer camp that trains 60 to 75 children full time in singing, instrumental practice and music theory. (The pandemic has limited but not halted these activities.)
What was the thinking behind the unique combination of chorus and orchestra? It was Newman’s conviction that a fully formed musician has to be able to do more than just one thing.
“She understood that many singers are limited to just their vocal ability,” said Geechi Taylor, a trumpeter and Berkeley native who was Newman’s protege for nearly two decades and now serves as the YMCO’s executive director. “And she understood that for instrumentalists, learning to sing would give them new opportunities for expression with their instruments.”
Just as important, Taylor added, there was an element of cultural empowerment.
“She took vocalists who were at a certain level and put instruments in their hands, and that propelled them into a different position when they auditioned for music schools because they could talk about the theory behind what they were singing.
“That is not the norm, especially for kids of color,” Taylor continued. “They might be great gospel singers, but often their knowledge base is very limited. So when a committee sees a kid of color singing opera, and they’re wowed not only by the singing but by their intellectual knowledge, that can make a big difference.” YMCO, which operates on an annual budget of just over $1 million, points with pride to its record in helping its students graduate from high school — its website claims a 100% graduation record — and to alumni who have gone on to colleges, conservatories and, in some cases, professional careers.
That, too, is part of Newman’s philosophy, a brand of tough love she called the “Power Triangle,” which required students to excel equally in musicianship, academics and citizenship.
“The expectations are high,” Taylor said. “With lowincome students you have to provide everything so there’s no excuses. Live too far away? We’ll arrange rides. Don’t have an instrument? We’ll buy you an instrument. We’ll give you everything you need to succeed.
“YMCO takes care of the whole child. Other organizations say, ‘Come in for the music, and we’ll see you later.’ But they’re not necessarily taking care of what else is happening in these kids’ lives.”
Frederica von Stade, the great mezzosoprano, has been on the organization’s board for more than a decade, and has seen that fullon support — first from Newman, now from Taylor — firsthand.
“The kids don’t even audition,” she says. “Daisy would interview them and get an idea if they were interested, and then we’d recruit them. They didn’t have to play an instrument.
“I’ve seen what this has done for the kids, and it hasn’t always been about music. A lot of what Daisy did, and what Geechi does, is like being a shrink.”
It helps that Newman had the ability to attend carefully to everyone she came in contact with.
“What impressed me deeply was that she always took a lot of time with you. She didn’t waste time, but it was part of her process that whoever you were, she got to know you very well,” von Stade said.
That attention was lavished on YMCO students, said Taylor, even when they weren’t aware of it. “How many executive directors are going to come to your house and check to make sure you had enough food, because she noticed at the end of rehearsal you were taking two or three of the sandwiches that were provided?” Newman was, by all accounts, a fashionable dresser, an irresistible conversationalist, a demanding educator and a fulltime dynamo. Taylor said she worked until three weeks before her death — answering questions, helping solve logistical problems, keeping tabs on the program’s alumni. The organization she built stands as a remarkable legacy.