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Polished Young Choristers Evoking Eternal Mysteries

by Steve Smith, New York Times. June 26, 2007

The Brooklyn Youth Chorus is regularly heard alongside prestigious ensembles in major works at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In March it helped Elton John celebrate his 60th birthday at Madison Square Garden; other collaborators have included Andrea Bocelli and Lou Reed. It can sometimes be hard to think of this group, founded by Dianne Berkun in 1992, as anything but a polished ensemble of miniature professionals.

That sense was certainly prominent in “Soundscapes,” presented by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus Academy over the weekend in the Kumble Theater for the Performing Arts at Long Island University in downtown Brooklyn. The three concerts featured the academy’s various training divisions: a reminder of just how much time and work these singers put in to get to Carnegie Hall.

At the first concert, on Friday evening, the Junior Chorus, whose members ranged from the third to eighth grades, sang jaunty tunes with impeccable diction and gave stylish performances of adventurous pieces by Frode Fjellheim and John Burge.

The Concert Chorus, the academy’s senior ensemble, projected confidence and polish in a series of sophisticated modern hymns and traditional spirituals. Fauré’s resplendent “En Sourdine” swayed to a gentle bossa nova beat in the first of two new arrangements commissioned from the jazz pianist Joel A. Martin. In the other, “I Hear a Rhapsody,” Mr. Martin’s filigree elaborations were deftly handled by a strong pair of scat-singing soloists.

Three commissioned works, presented under the collective title “Myths and Origins,” bypassed familiar theologies in evoking eternal mysteries. Paul Moravec painted the roiling dawn of existence in stormy tones and piquant dissonances in “Creation Hymn,” based on part of the Rig-Veda, a Hindu religious text.

David Lang’s “evening morning day” boiled creation down to a ritualistic stepwise tally of its components, intoned first in unison, then in staggered echoes. (An evocative marking, “like a very tired clock,” appears at the top of the score.)

Nico Muhly conjured up the end of the world in “Syllables,” with bright, tricky snatches of English and Old Icelandic scattered against shimmering Minimalist pulsations and keyboard arpeggios.

The chorus did well by these striking works; less convincing were the special effects that accompanied them. Hand-held lights that danced like fireflies in Mr. Muhly’s piece were no cause for objection. But during Mr. Moravec’s piece, stage lights rose from darkness to piercing intensity, an unnecessarily literal depiction of what the music conveyed on its own.

And when Mr. Lang’s studied neutrality was accompanied by a chorus of fluttering, waving hand gestures, it called to mind the “South Park” episode that featured a parody cameo by Philip Glass as the composer of a nonreligious elementary school holiday pageant. These songs didn’t need so much fuss. Neither did the singers.

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