A sold-out concert is a splendid problem for presenters, but a different kind for latecomers. On Friday, the smart audience members showed up well in advance at St. Paul’s Church in Harvard Square. Those who arrived “only” half an hour beforehand had to hunt furtively for spaces in the pews; those who merely arrived on time had to solicit help from the ushers to find so much as a place to stand. The occasion for all of this was a concert by the Vienna Boys’ Choir.
When glimpsed in North America, the Vienna Boys’ Choir is actually a fraction of the whole, which divides into four touring ensembles each year. As a result, local viewers are likely to see an entirely different group of boys if they catch the choir in consecutive years. Friday’s concert featured the VBC’s Bruckner Choir: twenty-four boys under the direction of the choirmaster-pianist Manolo Cagnin. Their ambitious program of more than two-dozen pieces in six languages made for a very musical evening. Several of the more familiar pieces were clearly audience favorites, but each selection was received with warm and often rapturous applause.
One of the attractions of seeing the Vienna Boys’ Choir perform is experiencing a world-famous choir in a live concert. Another is seeing (and hearing) the group of musically (very) precocious boys in action, displaying abilities that are far out of the norm for their age. To this is added the clear and unique timbres of treble singing, mixed with the foreknowledge that this voice quality is all-too ephemeral. In the VBC, as in boy choirs around the world, twelve years old can be a very late age to still be a soprano. All of these together made the accomplishments of the choirboys, especially the soloists, that much more delightful.
The first half of the program was mostly drawn from the Western art music tradition, whereas the second half consisted primarily of carols and popular Christmas songs. The music was primarily written in two-part vocal settings or arranged in similar fashion; some, like the flashy opening of “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana, included some of the choirboys playing percussion. A few select pieces saw a choirboy replacing Cagnin at the piano or accompanying the choir with a melodic instrument.
Polished stagecraft was also on exhibit on Friday night. Cagnin led the choir with a flamboyant conducting style and dramatic gestures at the piano, and if they seemed overly exaggerated at times the sound of the choir did not suffer from it. The choirboys moved swiftly through different standing configurations, sang (excepting one or two solos) entirely from memory, and seemed to delight in surprising the equally charmed audience by unexpectedly producing and playing various instruments in the middle of a performance. One of the clear audience favorites of the evening was, “Nella Fantasia”, which featured one of the choirboys on oboe and a sterling treble soloist. (This pop-classical piece is based on “Gabriel’s Theme” by Ennio Morricone, from the movie The Mission.)
There were at least four very talented soloists in the choir, with the soprano and alto leads in particular showing exceptional training, tone, and artistic interpretation for their ages.
One could easily see a bit of friendly rivalry between them (which produced many smiles in the audience) and both show strong prospects for the future, but unfortunately their names were not given in the printed program. (Visitors to the VBC website will not have any more luck, as the Bruckner Choir’s English-language page is four years out of date. The German version is more current, but does not identify the singers either.) The listed program itself was no more than a loose guide for the actual repertoire performed, a fact complicated by the occasional song announcements being mostly unintelligible.
One of the Christmas pieces in the second half of the concert was performed jointly with the singers of the St. Paul’s Choir School. This provided an excellent opportunity to hear the veteran choristers of each group and to compare the different vocal training. The VBC singers sang with the corners of their mouths held wider, while the SPCS boys singing dropped the jaw more, producing very different vowel sounds. How they navigated between registers was also quite different. The VBC boys sang with a pronounced difference between upper and lower registers, with something of a “pop” when an upward shift occurred – but the resulting high notes floated with a loud, clear, and ethereal quality. The SPCS singers approached their register shifts with more weight and produced a more blended transition and a beefier sound overall. It is not often in this country that two trained boy choirs can be so closely compared.
The final stage of the concert consisted of a string of popular Christmas songs. Cagnin, ever the showman, finished things with a long medley of an encore that showcased the wide variety of music styles that the choir tackles. It was a flashy end to a strong concert.