The Wall Street Journal is “smitten” with Brooklyn Youth Chorus

Singing Their Love of Tolkien’s ‘Rings’

The Wall Street Journal

By Ralph Gardner | April 9, 2015

Disclaimer: I’m epically underqualified to write about J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” “The Lord of the Rings” and the movies based on the fantasy novels.

I haven’t read any of them, even though my daughter Lucy did in the eighth grade and assures me they’re great.

Also, I haven’t seen any of the films.

So, I understandably had trouble keeping up Tuesday afternoon as Brooklyn Youth Chorus members Ciara Cornelius, 17 years old, and Rachel Vales, 18, discussed their favorite parts of the movies’ scores.

We happened to be in the bowels of Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater, where Ms. Cornelius and Ms. Vales were preparing to join a dress rehearsal for that night’s performance of “The Fellowship of the Ring,” the first film in the trilogy.

These aren’t your average screenings. They involve 250 musicians onstage, including the 21st Century Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Ludwig Wicki. And they perform Academy Award-winning Howard Shore’s score as the movie plays on a screen above their heads.

Tuesday night’s show had been added by popular demand. Performances run through Sunday, but there are few tickets left. The “Hobbit Package,” which includes a post-concert reception, and the “VIP Gondor Package,” which boasts a “symposium” are sold out.

Members of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus rehearses for a live performance of ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’
Members of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus rehearses for a live performance of ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’ Photo: Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Brooklyn Youth Chorus Founder and Artistic Director Dianne Berkun-Menaker
Brooklyn Youth Chorus Founder and Artistic Director Dianne Berkun-Menaker  Photo: Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Indeed, I was attempting so strenuously to get up to speed on Ms. Vales’ and Ms. Cornelius’ Hobbit allusions that I neglected to ask where they attended high school. Later, I found out that Ms. Cornelius goes to St. Saviour High School in Park Slope and Ms. Vales is at Manhattan’s Bard High School Early College.

During our talk, however, I was able to glean they’re both seniors, heading off to college in the fall—Ms. Cornelius is eyeing Ithaca College and Ms. Vales is leaning toward Oberlin College in Ohio—and they’ve been performing the “Lord of Rings” movie cycle with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, which provides music education to 500 students since they were in middle school.

“It’s a big deal for us,” Ms. Vales explained. “It’s really nostalgic.”

Ms. Vales qualifies as one true Tolkien geek. She has read “The Hobbit” several times and she and a friend are doing an independent study on the works of the author.

“And we’re watching the movies between every book,” Ms. Vales explained as her fellow Brooklyn Youth chorus members, led by founder and artistic director Dianne Berkun-Menaker, practiced in the background. “We had this conversation about the Ring and why it makes you invisible.”

“What’s happening right now,” Ms. Vales added, apropos the rehearsal, “is the scene where Gandalf falls into this pit and Frodo and his friends are running out of this cave and they believe their best friend just fell to his death.”


I believe what prompted the invisibility discussion was that Ms. Cornelius was wearing a replica of the magical One Ring. “This is the one thing I can get away with,” she explained. She meant sartorially.

The performers are supposed to be unobtrusive. It wouldn’t do if they showed up in Middle-Earth regalia.

But back to Ms. Vales’s dissertation on invisibility: “The explanation we came up with is when you put on the ring it takes you out of this corporeal world where you’re pretending to be this thing for other people. People can’t see you because they can’t see you as you actually are.”

“I love it,” Ms. Cornelius said.

It was time to go upstairs and join the rest of the orchestra and chorus onstage.

I took a seat in the theater and was instantly smitten. Not by the movie, even though that seemed pretty cool, too—Frodo seemed to be fading fast as Arwen, an elf of Rivendell, dispatches his evil Wraith pursuers by drowning them in a wall of water.

In the next scene, after Frodo’s full recovery, there was a lot of back and forth, and approximately a millennium of back story, about the struggle for the ring between the forces of good and evil.

While it’s hard to get up to speed on a movie trilogy minutes before intermission, I loved the live music, especially the haunting solos by 25-year-old Kaitlyn Lusk. Ms. Lusk later told me she started with the production as a soloist when she was only 15 and has traveled the world with it.

“Every single place this show has gone—Australia, Taiwan, South America—it sells out. Fans of the books and movies are everywhere.”


The role of the chorus is somewhat more humble but nonetheless spirited. “It’s short but important,” Ms. Cornelius explained; Ms. Vales estimated the members sing five minutes spread out across the movie.

“We spend a lot of time waiting to come in,” Ms. Vales admitted, “but not a lot of time singing.”

Their favorite part? “The credits at the very end from ‘Fellowship’ makes me very happy,” Ms. Vales said. “Which is really funny because you have to sit through three hours of the movie first.”

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