Why Beyoncé Is a Fan of These Teenage Singers From Brooklyn
The acclaimed Brooklyn Youth Chorus collaborates with cutting-edge composers and has become a resource for popular musicians.
By Steven Edelstone
July 19, 2019
“Is Beyoncé Knowles the Beyoncé?”
Dianne Berkun Menaker, the founder and artistic director of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, was referring to an email, apparently from Ms. Knowles, during a staff meeting in 2018 at the organization’s headquarters in Cobble Hill. The email was requesting to license a piece her choir had recorded with Caroline Shaw, a 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner for Music, which would be featured in an upcoming tour with her husband Jay-Z.
“I don’t think I own a Beyoncé album, so the whole thing to me was really funny,” Ms. Berkun Menaker said, recalling the story in May from her office.
The Beyoncé request probably should not have been surprising to anyone at the conference table that day — nor to the hundreds of young singers, mostly between the ages of 11 and 18, who make up the current Brooklyn Youth Chorus. For many contemporary musicians looking to collaborate, the group has become a popular resource.
In the past year alone, chorus members have seen their work used by Louis Vuitton and Pharrell for a Chanel ad campaign; performed with David Byrne and countless other major artists across all genres; worked with several rock bands like the National and Bon Iver; and released a new record, featuring Ms. Shaw and other indie rock luminaries, all while going to school most of the day.
“You can’t be a procrastinator and be in B.Y.C.,” Thalia Glyptis, 15, said. “It just doesn’t work.” The group rehearses three times a week for a combined seven hours minimum, she said. “Having such a big chunk of your time going toward something else gives you a lot of understanding of how to use your time to the best of your abilities, which helped me in school.”
In 1992, Ms. Berkun Menaker established Brooklyn Youth Chorus as more of a community-based organization rather than a typical school choir. She knew the program would demand a lot from the singers but wouldn’t be a financial burden on their families.
“In my experiences traveling to choral conventions and such, in most cases, no matter what the population or how diverse the population,” Ms. Berkun Menaker said, “the elite choruses that were coming out of these cities never represented the actual communities.” This disturbed her, she said. “It felt really important that we be representative and inclusive.”
Ms. Berkun Menaker uses a trademarked technique that teaches young singers how to make physical adjustments to sound authentic across a wide range of genres and styles. Called Cross-Choral Training, it prepares her singers to tackle classical masterworks and pop songs alike. But the group has also embraced secular music and pieces not typically performed by high school choirs.
A decade after the chorus got its start, it performed alongside John Adams and the New York Philharmonic with “On the Transmigration of Souls” in 2002. The recording of the piece won the Grammy Award for best classical album in 2005. The year before, the chorus had performed with Elton John, at Radio City Music Hall.
Around this time, the collaborations began to snowball: an appearance on “Sesame Street” with Alicia Keys here, backing vocals on an album by the rock band, Grizzly Bear, there.
Chorus members took the star-studded collaborations in stride, and continue to do so today, said Maya Renaud-Levine, 16. “As much as we try not to be the fangirls, I think the artists also really make an effort to respect us as fellow artists, and that’s really what it feels like,” Ms. Renaud-Levine continued. “It feels like a collaboration as opposed to them doing us a favor or us looking up to them all the time. It feels like being respected on an equal playing field.”
In 2000, Ms. Berkun Menaker began commissioning pieces to outside composers. By the end of the decade, 13 different artists had written work specifically for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, a number that has since swelled to 50.
A result of this effort, “Tour Eiffel,” a complex choral arrangement composed by Bryce Dessner, who plays multiple instruments for the National, and featuring the chorus, had its premiere at St. Ann’s Warehouse, in Brooklyn, in 2011. “Tour Eiffel” became one of the chorus’s signature pieces, beginning a lengthy collaboration that continues to this day.
In 2014, the choir presented an evening-length work curated by Mr. Dessner, “Black Mountain Songs,” at the BAM Harvey Theater as part of the Next Wave Festival. Working with accomplished composers like Nico Muhly and Caroline Shaw, as well as the guitarist Richard Reed Parry from the rock band Arcade Fire, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus went on to record “Black Mountain Songs” in 2017. It was the group’s first commercial release.
Most recently, the choir, featured on the National’s new album, “I Am Easy to Find,” performed alongside the band at its recent Celebrate Brooklyn! shows in Prospect Park, as well as on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” in June.
Though the teenagers of Brooklyn Youth Chorus have been collaborating with some of the biggest names in music — Thom Yorke, John Legend, and Barbra Streisand, to name a few — they have not been daunted by the star wattage. Many of them have become more self-assured in the process.
“I was very shy and my mom thought the best way for my voice to be heard was in a chorus with the support of an entire group,” Ms. Glyptis said, just before taking the stage alongside the National at the Celebrate Brooklyn! concert. “She found the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and ever since, I’ve gained a lot more confidence. I’ve been able to sometimes sing on my own.”
Ms. Renaud-Levine also described herself as “painfully shy,” preferring not to speak up in the classroom. “My teacher would talk to my mom and be like, ‘You know your daughter knows the answers, but what’s going on?’ She knew I loved to sing so she also signed me up and it pretty much cured that.”
This newfound self-confidence among the choristers frequently crops up in rehearsals with their famous collaborators. Perhaps the best example happened while the singers were working with Mr. Muhly, the composer, on a piece called “Advice to a Young Woman” in November 2016.
The song, inspired by a 300-year-old pamphlet detailing how a woman should behave, plays off the unrealistic rules for women with a satirical eye. The choreography initially had members of the ensemble looking at their cellphones, an idea that many of the singers did not like.
“It just felt that that choreography was blaming teenagers for being immersed in their cellphones,” Ms. Renaud-Levine said. “It was really about how adults impose on these young women and sexualize them and turn them into these people who suddenly have to watch where they look because they’re going to attract a man or whatever,” she continued. “It felt like almost putting the blame on the child when this was about holding adults accountable. We wanted to see that reflected in the choreography as well.”
Sierra Principal, 16, said that since composers are writing material for the chorus, she feels like it’s almost expected that the working relationship among them be equal and participatory. “Because we’ve been through this process so many times, I think we’ve definitely become more comfortable and we’re more open to putting ideas out there,” she said.
That confidence affects the musicians too, Ms. Shaw said. “It was a really great collaboration from the beginning,” she said. “I think they inspired me to write some of my best music.”
Although the chorus members are driven and well trained — alumni include a Met Opera National Council winner and touring jazz artists — they are still children at the end of the day.
“Under Dianne’s direction, they’re incredibly professional,” said David Byrne, who in May performed with the chorus at the National Sawdust Gala in Williamsburg.
“But they turned back into kids at lunch break,” he said with a laugh.Click here for full story