Building a celebrated youth chorus as diverse as the city itself — that was the dream of a visionary music teacher in Brooklyn. Dianne Berkun Menaker knew that a community-based chorus of unforgettable voices would excel with a repertoire as varied as the backgrounds of its singers.
Ever since grade school, Dianne has been involved with choirs. She knew that kids who loved to sing would enjoy it that much more and have fun while really learning, if they had high-level training. “I wanted them to be singer/musicians and treat the voice as its own instrument, to develop their voices and their musical understanding as fully as those who had private lessons,” she said.
She launched her idea in 1992, while music director at the Brooklyn Friends School. Dianne had never before started a music academy nor formed a nonprofit, recruited board members, raised money, found rehearsal space and spread the word. But she overcame all those nevers.
Today Brooklyn Youth Chorus sings with world-renowned orchestras and artists. It performs with acclaimed conductors such as James Levine, Charles Dutoit, Robert Spano, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Leon Botstein and Dennis Russell Davies. “There is tremendous pride for our singers in going through the stage door at Lincoln Center and being treated as professional artists even though they are still kids,” said Dianne.
One of her most rewarding experiences was preparing the Chorus for its 2002 debut with the New York Philharmonic in John Adams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning On the Transmigration of Souls, a moving tribute to 9/11 victims. That artistic triumph led to another: the recording of those live performances earned the chorus a GRAMMY® Award in February 2005.
Dianne made her onstage conducting debut at Carnegie Hall in 2003, performing Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols with Brooklyn Youth Chorus. She has also conducted the Chorus at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center for subsequent performances of Britten’s War Requiem—under the batons of Lorin Maazel, David Atherton, and Robert Bass.
True to her idea of a chorus that is musically nimble, Dianne has created an inclusive curriculum and repertoire that span classical to modern pieces. She has also launched an ongoing effort to commission and develop new works for the chorus across a variety of genres. That breadth of experience has allowed her to successfully prepare Brooklyn Youth Chorus to sing with acclaimed orchestras and with a diverse roster of major recording artists: Sir Elton John, Barbra Streisand, Lou Reed, Judy Collins, Andrea Boccelli, Lara Fabian, Monica, Debra Cox, P.O.D. and Ray Davies.
Active as a guest conductor and master teacher for choral workshops, demonstrations and choral festivals, Dianne recently led workshops and clinics for the New York Philharmonic, The Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall, and the New York City Department of Education. As a choral music consultant to the New York City public school system, she served on the 2003 K-12 Music Curriculum Development committee.
Raised in Suffern, New York, Dianne, earned her bachelor’s degree in Music Education and Piano magna cum laude from New York University. She studied conducting and theory at Mannes College of Music, and holds a graduate diploma in the Kodály Concept from the University of Calgary and an Artist-Teacher diploma from the CME Institute where she studied extensively with Dr. Doreen Rao.
The YWCA of Brooklyn named Dianne a “Woman of Distinction” and Brooklyn Congressman Major R. Owens honored her with a “Lifetime Struggle and Achievement Award.” She says her greatest reward is seeing the choristers grow as musicians and people: “I don’t think there is any greater gift that you can give somebody than helping them find the artist inside them, realizing that quality that makes them unique.”
She lives in Brooklyn Heights with her daughter and husband.