Vienna Boys Choir mix it up with a cosmopolitan “Christmas in Vienna”

Mon Dec 17, 2018 at 2:36 pm
The Vienna Boys Choir performed Sunday at Carnegie Hall.

The Vienna Boys Choir performed Sunday at Carnegie Hall.

One thing you can say for the Vienna Boys Choir: they give value for your ticket dollar.

After the programs were printed for their Carnegie Hall concert Sunday, showing a lineup of 20 pieces, choirmaster Oliver Stech decided to add three more. And at the end of this enhanced scheduled program, Stech and the boys stuck around for five encores.

But really, you may ask, how much music by 25 singing children and one pianist-conductor can you listen to at one go? Especially if you’re a person of grade-school age, as many in Sunday’s audience were.

The answer is: plenty. Young and old listeners alike seemed to groove along with a set list that was like what Mark Twain said about the weather in New England: If you don’t like it, wait a minute. The artful mix of ancient and modern, classical and pop, smooth and snappy kept the audience engaged for nearly two hours, with intermission.

The program’s title, “Christmas in Vienna,” apparently referred to the cosmopolitan Vienna of today, where one might indeed hear buskers at a tram stop break into a chorus of “Jingle Bell Rock.”

Besides the eclectic programming, let’s not forget the sheer wonder of young voices thoroughly trained and ensembles carefully crafted, and all of it performed from memory. It seemed as though nothing could set Carnegie’s vast space ringing like a high, finely-tuned major triad sung in vibratoless straight tone.

Further varying the mix, the boys shifted into different formations, stepping forward a few at a time for small ensembles, and for one modern piece (John N. Mochnick’s “Ave Maria”) dotting themselves individually all around Carnegie’s large stage. (The ensemble and the tuning of close intervals suffered not at all.)

About a half dozen choristers took solos, some revealing exceptionally pure and strong voices, the others drawing on courage and sincerity to put it across.

It seems as though long, varied programs like this often begin with something a little on the dull side, just for a tune-up.  For whatever reason, Mendelssohn’s Veni, Domine, composed for nuns at a church in Rome, sounded somewhat thin both for choral sound and musical content.

However, the very next number, a traditional Gaudete arranged by Gerald Wirth, popped with dancy rhythms, smart phrasing, and bell-like solos. The Christmas hymn “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” (Lo, how a rose e’er blooming), performed more up-tempo than usual, avoided sentimentality but still sounded sweet.

The program’s three added items followed: the children’s “Evening Prayer” from Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, and two Schubert pieces, the tally-ho Widerspruch for male chorus (energetically accompanied by an accomplished young pianist from the choir) and a smooth setting of Psalm 27. Even among themselves, the additions had an intriguing variety.

Christmas splendor was represented by two choruses from Saint-Saëns’s Oratorio de Noël, “Gloria in altissimis Deo” and the even grander “Tollite hostias.” The modern-sounding Mochnick piece followed, and was answered by an antique-sounding modern piece, Gareth Walters’s setting of William Blake’s “The Lamb,” full of hollow-sounding fifths in the chorus and modal harmonies in the piano.

Carnegie’s resonant acoustics, so hospitable to the choir’s long tones, were less helpful to their detail work. Even slowed down a bit from the usual presto tempo, the whip-smart counterpoint of “This Little Babe” from Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols couldn’t be heard clearly. From the same work, “Deo Gracias” also sounded a little blurry, but the harmonies of “There Is No Rose” were gratifyingly lush.

For most of the afternoon, the boys stood and delivered with admirable concentration but not much physical action.  The exceptions came in the second half’s garland of carols of many nations, where a certain slow-three rhythm would get them collectively swaying to the beat, as in John Rutter’s arrangement of “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day,” the Spanish carol “La virgen lava pañales” (arranged by Robert deCormier), and Eve Schwarz’s seasonal tableau “Winterszeit.”

Director Stech arose from the piano to lead several effective a cappella numbers, conducting his well-drilled singers with economical gestures, or occasionally lining up with them and singing along, as in Robin John King’s rich setting of “There Is No Rose.”

Singing a cappella, the boys successfully negotiated the tempo and meter changes of the Italian carol “Dormi, dormi bel bambin,” and tuned up the yodeling thirds of the Upper Austrian “Es wird scho glei dumpa.”  But the overlapping carillon effects of Mykola Leontovich’s familiar “Carol of the Bells” were somewhat obscured by the wet Carnegie acoustic.

The “Wexford Carol,” rich in modal Celtic harmonies, was accompanied by a chorister on a guitar. The hearty homophony of Karl Neuner’s “Fröhliche Weihnacht überall” and a gentle dialogue of solo and choir in Eduard Ebel’s “Leise rieselt der Schnee” rounded out this collection of carols and carol-like choruses.

From there it was on to “Jingle Bell Rock,” with the stalwart young men in their sailor suits bravely going for the swinging syncopation and the contrapuntal special effects of Alan Billingsley’s arrangement. Then, urged on by Stech’s piano, the boys took “Jingle Bells” at a heady clip, as if acknowledging the song’s origins not in Christmas but a sleigh race.

Happily, the ritual of leaving the stage and returning several times before each encore was not observed Sunday. Director Stech exited once, briefly, then came back and led five numbers: the patriotic pop song “Empire State of Mind,” the novelty song “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” (arranged, like much else on the program, by Gerald Wirth, president and artistic director of the Vienna Boys Choir), a relaxed “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” a South African blessing song titled “Hlonofatsa” (with some nifty line dancing by the whole group plus director, and a little drummer boy whose playing went way beyond rum-pa-pum-pum), and finally, inevitably, “Silent Night,” but con moto and comparatively unsentimental.

Perhaps some of those who came to an event about Vienna expecting a nostalgia bath were disappointed, but looking around the hall, all one saw was people enjoying themselves at a well-planned and smartly performed concert.


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