Of all the musicians in the world, it may be assumed, overwhelmingly, that most find fulfillment and can potentially rise to their best when they rehearse and perform with others. Indeed, most audiences are moved the most by ensemble. So it was no surprise to see the Brooklyn Youth Chorus bring an audience to its feet several times during the concert for the annual gala. What was a surprise, perhaps revelation, to an outside observer at the May 7 concert, was the beauty, discipline, inspiration and pure power of an organization that clearly represents the pinnacle of ensemble leadership and vision. Anyone who calls Brooklyn home could be proud that this chorus, this academy, (official name: Brooklyn Youth Chorus Academy) bears the name of our hometown.
The evening began early for patrons with a light supper, silent auction and some preview music by young singers from the BYCA Intermediate Division. The cutting edge Green Building in Boerum Hill/Gowanus proved to be the perfect gathering space for a prelude to a breath-taking concert later featuring the Kronos Quartet. Borough President Marty Markowitz and Councilman Steve Levin brought political clout to praise BYCA and its honoree, board member Hillary Richard, who is one of NYC’s top female litigators—(oops, one of NYC’s top litigators, who also happens to be a woman) – as well as what BYCA calls “chorister parent” for more than eight years. Her skills, drive and generosity have been a key element in recent growth of BYCA’s new music program.
After supper and silent auction wound down, patrons were transported in luxury buses to Roulette, the restored performing space on the ground floor of the historic YWCA building at Third Avenue and Atlantic. (Movie fans may remember the wedding scene in Prizzi’s Honor, a film starring Jack Nicholson; it was filmed in this space.) With classic wrap-around balcony and intimate proportions, the Roulette space could boast, “not a bad seat in the house.”
Audience members drifted in after being offered wine and signature BYCA bottled water in the lobby, a thoughtful touch. They were serenaded to some light pop classics, sung a cappella by members of the BYCA Young Men’s Ensemble, who gathered informally in front of the stage and were led by conductor David Harris.
When the lights went down, the heralded Kronos Quartet went on stage and sat quietly while the chorus members filed in behind them. Choristers were also seen lining up at corners of the balcony. After a riveting introductory choral piece, conducted by Diane Berkun-Menaker from the rear balcony, Kronos played one of their signature modern pieces. Then the full chorus began to fill the stage behind Kronos and a remarkable tour de force of modern, original music, some of it commissioned by BYCA, filled the hall for the next 90 minutes, and brought the audience to its feet over and over.
When thunderous applause had died down and Founding BYCA Artistic Director Berkun-Menaker took the stage, glasses of champagne were being handed out to the audience to toast both Kronos and the young composers, whose new work had been commissioned by BYCA. The toasts indeed included BYCA itself, which has possibly raised the art of choral training and performance, particularly using children’s voices, to a new height unachieved by any other group in the U.S. That is, by bringing new works into the repertoire so aggressively and so competently.
Diane Berkun-Menaker had previously spoken to the audience only through the expressive hand, arm and body movements that guided her charges. But onstage, with microphone in hand and the audience silent, she summed up her work.
“I am often trying to describe what makes BYC unique and different from the average chorus,” she said. “In looking at the Kronos web site I saw almost the same words and explanations I use to describe the Chorus… fearless exploration; expanding the range and context of our sound...extraordinary breadth and creativity, collaboration with the world’s most eclectic composers and performers…” She looked out at the audience: “What more could we ask for?”
While the gala evening concert was centered on modern music, much of it written for the chorus, she emphasized that BYC still strives for the unique sound in all traditional music as well.
Board member, chorister mom and honoree Hillary Richard took the opportunity to challenge the audience in a brilliant move—something between a plea and a ploy. She said, “We need to raise $15,000 to continue commissioning new music for our chorus…I am pledging one thousand myself. I need your help to reach the goal before you leave tonight.” Looking around, one could imagine that the audience of several hundred people, despite the fact that they had already contributed as patrons simply to BE there, would come through. They did.
Valerie Lewis, BYCA’s Executive Director, noted “We are so pleased with the overwhelming success of our gala and benefit concert. We wanted to create an experience for our audience and supporters that inspired and delighted, but also showcased the breadth of our entire music program.”
Through the evening’s different venues, from light supper and silent auction—the staples of fundraising galas—to an astounding musical finale in the concert hall, what board members knew became clearer to visitors: BYCA has pulled all the elements together that move intelligent people. The children, being taught to perform with passion and discipline; the artistic venue guided by a perfectionist; and the administration, board and staff who knows how to make it grow. And it grows in Brooklyn.