Bernstein, Goodman, Perlman…Menk
Not many can say they’ve played Carnegie Hall. Even fewer can say they’ve done it eight times.
The famed venue opened in 1891 with a symphony conducted by Pyotr Tchaikovsky. On November 13, 2023, Dr. Nancy Menk from Saint Mary’s College will have that same honor when she conducts a choral concert there. For the eighth time.
Menk will appear at Carnegie at the request of Distinguished Concerts International New York, a producer of concert experiences that brings together distinguished global artists in notable venues. For each of the years she has been invited, Menk has conducted either women’s choirs or mixed choirs. The artists come from around the world, sometimes topping out at over 300 voices on stage at once.
To have such renown as a guest conductor is no small feat, yet Menk handles it all with her signature reserve. A career-long advocate for women in music, Menk’s reputation is strong in the tight-knit choral community. “I was doing good work with women’s voices,” she says of when she was first approached in 2019. “They wanted to highlight someone who could work with a wide range of voices and styles.”
Menk could not only do that in person, she has developed into an expert in how to do it long distance. After selecting the musical piece that the choir will perform, her process is to get an extensive set of instructions to the singers months before the concert. She will send directions for the music; how she wants each singer to approach the piece, any notations, word pronunciations, where they should take a breath, etc. With this substantial prep work, the musicians arrive in New York, “and we're all thinking about it the same way,” Menk says. They rehearse for a couple of days, and then it’s time for the performance.
Though this process is familiar to her, she still savors the moment, still appreciates its significance.
“I get a thrill every time. You’re in this dressing room and you know that Bernstein used it—all these famous people have used it,” she said. “And then just to walk on the stage is always thrilling. There's always a big audience. Because it’s Carnegie Hall, it will be packed. And, of course, the acoustics are just great.”
Menk often brings Saint Mary’s students with her, and this year is no different. Ten students will be with her, representing the College, experiencing the glamor and thrill of performing in the Stern Auditorium at Carnegie. They and 130 other singers will be led by Menk for the performance of Vivaldi’s famous Gloria.
Maeve Kearney ’24 and Sophia Cousins ’27 are two of the performers leaving this weekend. They both look forward to taking the piece they’ve rehearsed for months to a grand-scale performance. Cousins remembers the surreal moment when Menk broke the news. “I've been a musician for so long and Carnegie for me represents so much beautiful, prestigious history that it has been my dream even just to see Carnegie Hall. Having the opportunity not only to see a performance, but be part of a performance is absolutely incredible!”
Menk has been at Saint Mary’s for 39 years, as chair of the music department for most of that time. She is well known on the music scene, having made a name for herself by sheer determination to give performers the chance to share their gifts. Her passion for developing quality voices has earned her a reputation as a committed advocate for the industry. It’s what led her to travel three hours round trip once a week to guide the Northwest Indiana Symphony Chorus—for 24 years.
“I did it because it was a symphonic repertoire that I wasn't able to do here that much here, and I really liked it,” she said of the experience. “I do miss the people, but I don’t really miss the drive.”
Thirty-five years ago, Menk started an ensemble in-residence choir at Saint Mary’s, the South Bend Chamber Singers. This award-winning group of select musicians performs major choral-orchestral works, as well as works of living composers and new works. Aside from her Saint Mary’s students, this group is her pride and joy.
This passion translates to students at Saint Mary’s. Kearney, a music education major, is unreserved about the impact not only the chance to perform at Carnegie Hall has made, but also the impact Menk has had on her life as a musician. “I am proud to say that I am a student of hers,” Kearney said. “Dr. Menk is a role model for women in music. She has shown me how to exist in the world of music as a woman and to be independent and unapologetically myself.”
One of Menk’s favorite memories at Carnegie Hall took place in 2019. The concert was held on International Women’s Day, and she was joined by over 60 Saint Mary’s alumnae, in addition to her SMC choir at the time. The alumnae traveled from far and wide to not just perform at Carnegie, but to pay tribute to the woman whose influence was so great in their lives. They showed up wearing t-shirts they’d designed to mark the occasion. “They said ‘Forever Belles, Forever Dr. Menk’s Girls’,” Menk said, still visibly moved by the memory.
“That was special.”
November 9, 2023