What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the name “Vienna Boys Choir”—purity, discipline, voices like angels? The Vienna Boys Choir Boys “have charmed audiences since 1498” read the advertisement for their Holiday Program Saturday December 12. These “voices of pure silver and gold” did charm—and inspire. Just watching 24 boys ranging in age from ten to 14 sing for 90 minutes, from memory, music of different eras and countries could have carried the day. And how these kids travel for some 11 weeks touring about the world, I wonder.
Young and old filled Jordan Hall. Some of the youngsters I could see from my seat never once took their eyes off the unique Wiener Sängerknaben. All appeared entranced by these finely trained youth in sailor suits. It was my very first time catching them live. I thrilled to their singing I had heard on recording over many years, so you can imagine how anxious I was to attend this concert right here in Boston.
To begin the Holiday Program, their walking from both stage left and right while singing with a drum accompaniment made for pretty high drama. Flanking a concert grand piano placed center stage, these two groups of boys of all sizes, some of them quite small, burst out their ensemble singing of Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” from his popular Carmina Burana, charging the hall with still higher drama.
Omitting the Mozart Laudate Dominum listed on the program, conductor Manolo Cagnin continued directing with arms fully extended, continually sweeping them through the air while moving left and right, clearly making contact with every one of the young singers.
Chromatic harmony in Verdi’s “Laudi alla vergine” (from Quattro pezzi sacri) came with clarity and purity that you expect from these boys. The rendition of Gabriel Fauré’s Christmas favorite, Cantique de Jean Racine, missed the French flavor that makes this song so compelling.
The Italian evergreen, Santa Lucia, was stiff—no Italian warmth or flexibility. A humorous text in rapid fire delivery—a patter song—was overly fast underneath an overpowering piano played by conductor Cagnin, who was way too heavy on the keys all afternoon. His relaxed playfulness with both choir and audience soon succumbed to slapstick, charm fading fast. And there were other changes in the program that surprised and confused.
A number of bright moments lifted the afternoon out from a somewhat lackluster sound, from sometimes tentative singing and foggy entrances. In Jubilate Deo by Heinz Kratochwil (note the opus number of 157a), the Vienna Boys Choir created a whale of an effect through extraordinary contrasts and textures out of contemporary but accessible composition practice. Believe it or not, “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof turned into something absolutely super cool with the Wiener Sängerknaben.
A fabulous arrangement and performance of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” marked with smooth countrapuntal transitions, an astounding “Christmas” in glorious pop harmony, the melody note high up to climax the song, and perfect diction and ensemble singing would melt away any and every “Bah! Humbug.”
Various configurations of the choir that included their forming a semicircle all about the stage for the stereophonic Jublilate Deo and one long single line for the singing of We Are the World, an encore, furthered the well-paced program. So, too, did solos, duets, dancing, clapping and finger snapping. As for the choir boys who played piano accompaniment, well, they were accurate and kept the volume under control.
So, this was what it might be like hearing live this treasured ensemble steeped in history. No two performances are ever alike, some philosophizing musician has pointed out. The purity of a high B-flat ringing from these choristers gave chills throughout the afternoon. Their accomplishment is a marvel.