Kristofer Sanz originally set out to be a jazz saxophonist, wanting to do something different from his older brother, Rolando Sanz, an operatic tenor who has performed at Carnegie Hall and The Metropolitan Opera.
But after attending a symphony concert in college, Kristofer decided to become a conductor, so he could stand in front of an orchestra.
Ten years ago, wine and food flowing freely at Thanksgiving dinner, the Sanz brothers decided to combine their crafts and do a concert together. Rolando had just returned home to Rockville from gigging around the country. The brothers recruited some talented students from the Maryland Classic Youth Orchestras, where Kristofer was and remains music director and philharmonic conductor, and in May 2011 they staged a performance in the lobby of The Music Center at Strathmore — right before “an actual event that evening,” Rolando says.
While they’d originally intended to do just one show together, they were encouraged by the results to try another show. They put on the regional youth premiere of “The Phantom of the Opera,” featuring students from around the Washington area.
The “spectacular performance,” as Kristofer describes it, nearly sold out both nights. They saw themselves putting on a third show, then a fourth and a fifth.
It was the start of Young Artists of America.
Back then, the Sanz brothers built props in a garage and hauled everything in a U-Haul. They have since built a team of staff and teaching artists, working to reimagine the landscape of arts education. Kristofer is music director and Rolando is producing artistic director.
Instead of Strathmore’s lobby, YAA students of all levels, school-age through pre-professional, perform on the Rockville music center’s main stage and at other state-of-the-art venues around the Washington area.
Young performing artists train for large-scale, fully-orchestrated productions — one of YAA’s hallmarks — while receiving mentorship and instruction in instrumental music, musical theater and classical voice from world-class teaching artists from Broadway and beyond — think Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz.
“We went straight up like a rocket ship and kept on going, holding on for the ride,” Kristofer, 39, says. “From this tiny little seed, YAA has grown into this amazing forest of musicians from all over the area.”
Rolando, 43, describes YAA as a community where students — whether they act or dance or play the violin — can refine their skills and find their voices.
“I remember being these kids’ age and looking for that place where you can take off the mask, be yourself and geek out with your friends about things you have in common,” he says. “I had trouble finding it, so one of our goals is to create that space where students can express themselves — and also become storytellers, which unites us and teaches and creates empathy.”
According to Kristofer, this — “on top of the excellence of the artistry” — is what makes the nonprofit stand out.
Kristofer, who is also instrumental music director at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, became interested in education after having a teacher in college whose style was aggressive — “not the most welcoming or loving,” he says.
“During this time in their lives when they’re searching for their identities,” YAA offers students “a positive environment where you’re not being torn down but encouraged all along the way,” he says.
Adds Rolando, “I remember thinking to myself — as a specific teacher was breaking me down and building me back up to make me better, or so they said — that there has to be a better way: to lead with kindness.”
“If we can change a handful of young artists’ lives each year and encourage them to continue that kindness down the pike,” he added, “we can chip away at what can be a very jaded, business-like world in the performing arts and make it a kinder place, where we get back to making the art the priority.”
YAA alum Alex Stone, who recently embarked on a national tour of “Fiddler on the Roof,” says he doesn’t know if he’d be “as cheerful as a person going into theater” without the experience. He said Rolando was a role model who taught him about the importance of humility.
“When I joined the group it was just like being in another family,” he says. “Everyone was so nice, warm and inviting.”
Stone, 24, stressed the rarity, in all levels of theater, of being able to collaborate with a 70-piece orchestra.
The actor, who’s from McLean, found out about YAA when his parents told him that Tony Award–winning composer Jason Robert Brown would be artist in residence for YAA’s 2014 production of “Songs for a New World.”
“You couldn’t pass up that opportunity,” says Stone, who is now part of the group’s alumni advisory board.
Kristofer said that he and Rolando found the show on YouTube and cold emailed Brown, a mutual idol, asking him for the symphonic orchestration. Brown then agreed to be conductor.“That’ll always be a memory I hold dear — being able to stand in front of the kids that I care about so much in my orchestra, with Jason Robert Brown on the piano,” Kristofer says. “That brought it home to me that it’s a special organization.”
Rolando fondly recalls when, in February and March, YAA filmed “Into the Woods” outdoors.“Everyone stepped up, adults and kids alike,” he says. “We’ll look back on it in 20 years from now and say, ‘We did that. We told stories and created art when no one else was able to.’”
Over the past 18 months, YAA has created 14 virtual musicals. And it has managed not to furlough a single employee. However, COVID-19 has been a financial strain for the nonprofit, whose largest funder is The Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County.
Still, YAA aims to give back to the community, partnering with nearby schools to enroll students from marginalized communities. Additionally, former YAA parents Ollen and Julia Douglass have funded a scholarship for BIPOC students since July 2020, when the former became board president.
On and off stage, diversity and inclusion “have been part of our DNA ever since we started,” Rolando says, noting that YAA doesn’t shy away from doing shows about difficult topics.
“The way we go about it is to not just throw the kids into the deep end,” he says. “Our staff works really hard to create not just the artistic programming, but to teach the material in an age-appropriate manner.”
For example, in 2018, the group held a 700-person town hall before producing “Ragtime,” a musical that deals with racism and xenophobia. Then-Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett, who grew up in the South at the height of Jim Crow, and his wife Catherine, a former member of the board of the Maryland State Arts Council, were panelists in a discussion with the families of every participating student about the importance of them telling this story.
Kristofer says that the kids always push themselves, open to trying new things to better understand themselves and musical theater.
“When they become professionals, they’re not going to be jaded,” he says. “They can see any piece of music or any story they have to tell as a way to make a connection with someone to show who they truly are through their art form.”
He adds that YAA has strengthened his relationship with Rolando.
“While we do have our small, firm discussions about artistic things, in the end we always remember that it’s about the kids first, so that moves us forward.”