BYC Silent VoicesJanuary 14, 2017© Julienne Schaer

5 Questions to Dianne Berkun Menaker (Founder and Artistic Director, Brooklyn Youth Chorus)

Dianne Berkun Menaker is the Founder and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Under her direction, she has helped the chorus become one of the most highly regarded ensembles in the country and has prepared the choir to perform with conductors like Alan Gilbert, Marin Alsop, Gustavo Dudamel, Robert Spano and many others. On April 27-28, the chorus will perform the second installment of their Silent Voices concert series at National Sawdust. Silent Voices: If You Listen includes music by Julia Adolphe, Olga Bell, Anna Clyne, Paola Prestini, Toshi Reagon, Shelley Washington, Bora Yoon, guest artist Shaina Taub. Other artists like the International Contemporary Ensemble, R. B. Schlather, video and projection designer S. Katy Tucker, and sound designer Garth MacAleavey are also involved on the project. We were able to ask her some questions about the choir and the Silent Voices series.

What was the driving force for you to form the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and what do you think makes the chorus as successful as it is?

I was first compelled to create the Chorus because of my own deep love for the distinctive sound of the young treble voice. Apart from developing that sound ideal, I have always believed strongly in the value of music literacy and technical training for children, and felt that voice was the best vehicle in that it is unique to each person–an expression of one’s individuality–and accessible to all. Finally, I wanted to create a program that was truly representative of our larger community (geographically and demographically), without boundaries or barriers to participation based on economics or background.

I believe the Chorus has been successful for three primary reasons. First, because it is built upon the highest standards of excellence, in training, professionalism and performance. Next, because our programming is a reflection of the singers themselves–their strengths, diversity of ideas and perspectives–and the time and place in which we are performing. And finally, because of the spirit of collaboration between the singers, composers and artists we work with, allowing the young people to take part in the creation of the work as well as its performance.

As the loud cry for diversity in concert music seems to be at a fever pitch, how do you hope Silent Voices will affect other ensembles and artist in American concert halls?

I don’t believe diversity should be regarded as a programmatic theme but rather as a reflection of an artist or organization’s core values. As in all areas of our society, it matters whose voices, and whose stories are being heard, and that representation is as broad and far-reaching as possible–including women, people of color, the young, the old, etc. We need to hear their stories, their points of view, their poetry, their melodies, in all their creative forms, and expand the narrative.

There are a multitude of reasons why there has been a lack of representation in concert programming, which makes it an even greater responsibility now to seek out those underrepresented voices. I hope Brooklyn Youth Chorus can serve as a model in this regard, putting forth some lesser known or heard composers and venturing from the well-worn programmatic pathways. For us, diversity includes the composers whose music is being performed, who is doing the performing, and the range of themes and ideas being expressed. Contemporary music programming has helped to make this possible because we can learn from the composers and artists directly and fill in the gaps in our own knowledge or experience. We can be coached in different musical styles, explore new vocal techniques, help shape the subject matter, and be free of fixed ideas, standards or judgement.

Dianne Berkun Menaker

Dianne Berkun Menaker–Photo by Jill Steinberg

How did the International Contemporary Ensemble become involved and what do you think they add to the project?

Our first collaboration with ICE was for the project Hagoromo, composed by Nathan Davis, and featuring dancer Wendy Whelan. I was taken by their extraordinary musicianship and the expanded playing techniques of these remarkable players. Their personal investment in both the music and the collaborative nature of the performance shines through. The other important factor in our ongoing collaboration with ICE is their respect for, and investment in, working with our young people. These musicians are so open and generous, and truly appreciate the role they are playing in accompanying these young lives on their artistic journey.

What do you hope the members of the choir get out of this experience? Also, what do you hope the audience takes away from the performance?

For the choristers, I hope they come away with a deeper understanding of themselves as musicians, artists and human beings. I want them to understand that they have been given a fairly unusual platform to have their voices heard–literally and figuratively–and with that, comes both opportunity and responsibility. I want them to feel safe, encouraged, proud, and hopeful in expressing their thoughts and feelings and in allowing themselves to be vulnerable. I want them to be more open to new ideas and people–but to learn to listen to themselves, as well–to trust their own instincts.

I hope audiences come away moved, in their own way, by the power of the music, the beauty of the voices, and the importance of the ideas expressed. I hope they discover a composer they didn’t know before and an appreciation for the artistry of these young singers. I hope the audience recognizes the importance of the voices and perspectives of young people in tackling the issues of our time. Finally, I hope we all discover that, if we listen, and have the courage to speak our minds, we can all be agents of change and a needed voice for those who have fallen silent.

Even though this program is the second installment of the Silent Voices project, what makes this performance different? What do you hope the third installment will bring?

The musical program for If You Listen is completely new, with seven of the eight concert works as world premieres, and all by women composers. All of the spoken word elements in this production are drawn directly from the students own writing and conversations in response to the current repertoire and themes. This is also our first collaboration with director R.B. Schlather and video designer Katy Tucker, who have taken advantage of the unique space at National Sawdust in creating a truly immersive experience for the audience

With the premiere of Silent Voices last season, we endeavored to give voice to those individuals and groups, perhaps our own selves, who had been silenced or marginalized. With Silent Voices: If You Listen, we are amplifying those voices, gathering even greater momentum in exploring the issues, while also pointing the spotlight on women composers, often underrepresented in contemporary classical music. Next season, we will premiere Silent Voices: Lovestate, which will draw on highlights from the first two seasons and also include new premieres (Bryce Dessner, David Lang, Angelica Negron–to name a few), while we seek to affirm our vision for a more inclusive and compassionate future–a world we can all look forward to.