In The Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Teens Speak Up By Singing Out : Deceptive Cadence The group is celebrating its 25th anniversary by commissioning new pieces of contemporary classical music — and pushing the composers who write for the ensemble to broaden their own points of view.
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In The Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Teens Speak Up By Singing Out

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In The Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Teens Speak Up By Singing Out

In The Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Teens Speak Up By Singing Out

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The Brooklyn Youth Chorus is not your typical kids choir singing pop songs and show tunes. It's made up of students from among the poorest neighborhoods to the richest. And part of its mission is to give them a sense of purpose by collaborating with living classical composers. The group has just released its first album and is giving two high-profile concerts this weekend. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas has their story.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Dinanne Berkun Menaker founded the Brooklyn Youth Chorus 25 years ago, and she wants the kids to connect to the music they sing, so she commissioned pieces from such rock composers as Richard Reed Perry of the band Arcade Fire and Bryce Dessner of The National.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK MOUNTAIN SONG")

BROOKLYN YOUTH CHORUS: (Singing, unintelligible).

TSIOULCAS: For its debut album, the chorus recorded songs inspired by the legendary incubator of 20th-century arts, Black Mountain College. But for the concerts this weekend, Berkun Menaker wanted to give voice to her teenagers and their concerns.

DIANNE BERKUN MENAKER: This is a time in life for girls where they're very vulnerable and it's very easy to kind of go off track. And one of the things that I have seen is often students who have remarkable talent have very poor self-esteem. So I work with the choristers individually to really help them own what it means to, you know, take up space in a room and put their voice out there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANNI'S CONSTANT")

BROOKLYN YOUTH CHORUS: (Singing) Let the rhythm play itself, let the rhythm play itself, let the rhythm play itself, let the rhythm, let the rhythm, let the rhythm play itself (ph).

TSIOULCAS: For this weekend's performances, she asked her young singers what kinds of things they wanted to tackle musically, the topics that mattered to them as a racially, economically and culturally diverse group that comes from all over the city. Seventeen-year-old Izzi Stevenson has been with the chorus since grade school.

IZZI STEVENSON: We're under 18. So even in the political landscape, our representatives don't represent us because we're not voting for them. And so we don't really - our interests are not heard, and our concerns are not heard.

TSIOULCAS: The young singers were very clear about the concerns they wanted composers to address, says director Dianne Berkun Menaker.

MENAKER: The things that came up that everybody felt mattered were addressing issues around race, gender, sexuality, ageism.

TSIOULCAS: One of the artists the group turned to was composer Shara Nova, who also performs as My Brightest Diamond. She wrote a piece for the chorus called "Blind To The Illness."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLIND TO THE ILLNESS")

BROOKLYN YOUTH CHORUS: (Singing) I do not worry at night. I do not worry by day. I do not think about these things. I just go on my way.

TSIOULCAS: Speaking from her home in Detroit, Nova says her piece was very much a reflection of the times.

SHARA NOVA: I wrote "Blind To The Illness" in the summer of 2016 and Philando Castile and Alton Sterling had been killed. And I was really looking at myself and my own privileges. So the text for this song begins with a list of privileges, the first one being power to ignore the subject of racism.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLIND TO THE ILLNESS")

BROOKLYN YOUTH CHORUS: (Singing) Power to ignore, power to look away, power to drive as fast as I can, power to pretend, power to see myself reflected.

NOVA: In this original version of the text, the narrative was of an adult me admitting that I have racist beliefs having grown up in this social institution.

TSIOULCAS: At first, her text read, I see no color. But Izzi Stevenson says the young singers pushed back and asked Nova to reconsider those lyrics.

STEVENSON: I mean, what does that mean that you see no color? Like, of course, you see color. So how do we make sure that she understands the different viewpoints of our chorus?

TSIOULCAS: The composer took their concerns to heart, and she wound up rewriting the lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLIND TO THE ILLNESS")

BROOKLYN YOUTH CHORUS: (Singing) I see in color. I see in color. How about you (ph)?

TSIOULCAS: Interacting with working composers has also inspired some of these young singers to start writing their own music. One of them is 17-year-old Sarah Maria Sotomayor.

SARAH MARIA SOTOMAYOR: I can go on and on about growing up as a mixed Latina woman. The composers I heard of were Mozart and Bach and Beethoven. Like, those were the ones who made it and who are always talked about in music classes, and that's all I was exposed to. And it wasn't until I spoke with some of the composers we worked with at BYC and they were like, you should just try your hand at it. Like, we have a feeling you could do this. And I was like, wow. It was a lot for someone like me who didn't have anyone in their life who did music to be told by someone who is successful in music, like, you can do this too.

TSIOULCAS: And for these singers in the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, finding value in their own voices is something priceless. Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANNI'S CONSTANT")

BROOKLYN YOUTH CHORUS: (Singing) Listen to what's already there. Listen to what's already there. Listen to what's already there. Listen to what's already there. Listen to what's already there. Listen to what's already there.

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