Choral Director & Conductor: Dianne Berkun-Menaker
Creator: Bryce Dessner
John King: aer imitatur naturam
Bryce Dessner: Black Mountain Song
Richard Reed Parry: there is a sound
Caroline Shaw: Its Motion Keeps
Bryce Dessner: My World
Aleksandra Vrebalov: Bubbles
Jherek Bischoff: Childhood's Dreams
Nico Muhly: Fielding Dawson in Franz Kline's Studio
Bryce Dessner: Maximus
Richard Reed Parry: Spaceship Earth
Caroline Shaw: Anni's Constant
Richard Reed Parry: Their Passing in Time
Tim Hecker and Bryce Dessner: M.C. Richard
After attending one performance per day for the past five days and having two more lined up for the next two days, I had figured that I should take Thursday night off and just stay home. But I had not taken into account the irresistible siren song coming from the Brooklyn Youth Chorus all the way from BAM's cool Harvey Theater, where the unstoppable ensemble would première Black Mountain Songs, a 90-minute choral work co-commissioned by BAM and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, created by Bryce Dressner, and inspired by North Carolina's erstwhile Black Mountain College, an informal community of teachers and students deeply dedicated to carrying out its intergenerational and multidisciplinary mission in a highly collaborative atmosphere.
Accordingly, eight composers have industriously collaborated for the past three years, eventually coming up with twelve songs that would be interspersed with readings and enhanced with the occasional dance number and photo or video projection. Running the whole show would be Dianne Berkun-Menaker and her consistently excellent Brooklyn Youth Chorus, a sizeable group of predominantly female teenagers who delivered dazzling performances the couple of times I got to hear them at Carnegie Hall. I could not have imagined a better singing force to embody Black Mountain's youthful, creative and collaborative spirit, or a better reason to go out on what was supposed to be my night at home.
Polyphony seemed to be the name of the game on Thursday night, whether stemming from Black Mountain's multi-faceted raison d'être or the music's endlessly complex harmonies. The multitude of composers involved in the project, among whom the most recognizable names may be Caroline Shaw, Nico Muhly, Richard Reed Parry and Bryce Dessner himself, also provided an impressively wide range of songs, which for the most part relied on poetry or text related to Black Mountain.
From John King's stunningly ethereal "aer imitatur naturam", sung by chorus members located in the stairs, the boxes and on the stage, all the way to Richard Reed Parry's red-hot "Their Passing in Time", which including a lot of fiercely rhythmical stomping, the audience found itself immersed in a totally engaging performance that was paying a sincere tribute to the ground-breaking educational experiment.
Inevitably, some songs stood out more than others. In addition to the powerful opening and closing numbers, I particularly noted Caroline Shaw's "Its Motion Keeps", which started inconspicuously with the composer on the viola and the chorus singing at its clearest, before growing into a soaring tapestry of sounds examining the ever-elusive concept of time.
Bryce Dessner's "Maximus to Gloucester" organically evoked America's original seaport and Richard Reed Parry's "Spaceship Earth" eloquently spoke of Buckminster Fuller's work, both supported by insightful visuals. Nico Muhly's spirited "Fielding Dawson in Franz Kline's Studio" proved that choral singing could be a lot of fun too, as did Aleksandra Vrebalov's whimsical "Bubbles".
The Brooklyn Youth Chorus being made of 50 young people, the singing was predictably fresh, fearless and energetic. More surprising was their uncanny ability to handle complicated harmonies and generally difficult passages, a challenge that they apparently found more stimulating than paralyzing if we are to believe the beautiful sounds they were creating. Granted, these beautiful sounds sometimes happened at the expense of articulation, which is regrettable when the text is such a crucial part of the whole show, but the experience was too exhilarating to dwell on it too much.
Complementing the musical performance was the projection of photos taken at Black Mountain during its years of operation, from 1933 to 1957, as well as photo and videos of related topics. While we were not always sure who we were looking at, it still made the seemingly utopian institution and its people a more palpable reality.
The small orchestra played on an elevated platform in the back, non-obtrusive and yet very much present. On the discreetly rustic stage, the singers and dancers, clad in free-flowing light-colored clothes, had plenty of room to move around freely, while the narrators, which included the poet and artist Basil King, a Brooklynite since 1969 and former Black Mountain student, and some of the singers, read from the sides. This simple setting made the performance accessible and compelling.
Black Mountain College has had a direct influence on a large array of cultural luminaries ‒ By default it did not matter of they were teachers or students ‒ such as John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Franz Kline, Robert Creely, Charles Olson and Buckminster Fuller, just to name a few. I bet they would be pleased with Black Mountain Songs.