"Aida" at the Metropolitan Opera
Vienna Boys Choir at Chicago's Symphony Hall

The Brooklyn Youth Chorus Performs "Black Mountain Songs" at BAM

by Steven Pisano

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Photo by Steven Pisano

The Brooklyn Youth Chorus enjoys a solid go-to reputation in the city’s classical music world, frequently singing a supporting role in choral works by Mahler and Britten with the New York Philharmonic. At the same time, showing off their range, BYC has sung alongside pop giants like Elton John, John Legend, Alicia Keys, and Brooklyn’s own Barbra Streisand.

But with Black Mountain Songs, developed over the past three years, and presented in four performances this week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater, the BYC, under the direction of its founder Dianne Berkun-Menaker, steps out front as the star of the show. Black Mountain Songs was co-curated by Bryce Dessner and Richard Reed Parry, and includes songs from both of them, as well as from such notable contemporary composers as Nico MuhlyCaroline ShawJohn KingAleksandra VrebalovJherek Bischoff, and Tim Hecker.

Black Mountain College was a progressive arts school in North Carolina operated from the 1930s to 1950s, with an impressive roster of teachers and students such as Merce Cunningham, Josef Albers, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, Arthur Penn, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, and Willem de Kooning. This show celebrates and explores the free-wheeling, collaborative spirit of inter-generational creativity that made the school such a magnet for so many influential artists, dancers, musicians, and writers in mid-twentieth-century America.

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Photo by Steven Pisano

The guiding aim of the show from the start was not to present a historical account of Black Mountain College in song form. You leave the theater knowing no more about the college than when you went in. But your curiosity is sure to be piqued as to why this small mountain college in the South, which closed almost 60 years ago, should so inspire some of the top lights in today’s new music, classical, and rock worlds.

These are serious songs investigating themes of creativity, memory, and place, written about a generation of creative giants now mostly deceased, by a generation of composers in the prime of their careers, and performed by a generation of young singers whose futures, being still teenagers, still beckon ahead of them.

Several songs have a clear connection to Black Mountain or its alumni, such as Dessner’s “Maximus to Gloucester,” which uses text from teacher/poet Charles Olson’s long poem cycle, and Muhly’s “Fielding Dawson in Franz Kline’s Studio,” which uses text from the Beat writer’s memoirs about the Abstract Expressionist painter.

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Photo by Steven Pisano

Other pieces are linked more in spirit. “Bubbles,” for example, by Serbian composer Vrebalov, uses the poem “The Language” by Robert Creeley as an exploration of the ephemeral nature, and difficulties, of expressing oneself.

The success of any song cycle like Black Mountain Songs rests mostly on its unity, but often there are pieces that transcend the concept. Among the standouts here are Caroline Shaw’s “Its Motion Keeps,” which uses the words (but not the melody) of a traditional church hymn from the 1830s, and Richard Reed Parry’s “Their Passing in Time,” which brings the performance to a foot-stomping, hand-clapping climax.

Less successful are attempts to make Black Mountain Songs a multimedia extravaganza. Old photographs and snippets of film are projected on a trapezoidal screen hung above the stage, but who are these people, and where are these places? Likewise, two dancers seem to be yearning for something in their dances, but it was not clear what. Basil King, a Black Mountain alum now living in Brooklyn, was the narrator, offering brief commentary between songs.

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Photo by Steven Pisano

But in the end, Black Mountain Songs was all about the singing. Listening to these young voices, whether all of them at once or in smaller chamber groups, was an experience at once delicate, rousing, and sublime. It was easy to get carried away in the pure dynamic beauty of their sound. At times they achieved an elegant airiness, like a meringue, and at other times their collective voices were a ferocious roar.

Black Mountain Songs succeeds in its aim by actively practicing the spirit of collaborative creativity that Black Mountain College embodied. The students and teachers celebrated in these songs would be proud that their spirits live on. 

More photos here.