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Choral and Vocal
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CHORAL AND VOCAL REVIEW
Mastercard Performance Series / Sunday, November 27, 2016
Vienna Boys Choir

Vienna Boys Choir in Weill Hall

EARLY CHRISTMAS SEASON TRIUMPH FOR 24 ANGELS IN WEILL

by Sonia Morse Tubridy
Sunday, November 27, 2016

Weill Hall Nov. 27 was packed with an audience of young and old excitedly waiting for an early holiday concert by the Vienna Boys Choir, and this esteemed Choir is a five-hundred year institution which is based in a school of 100 choristers. Four touring groups divide their time between studying and world tours, and their ages are between nine and fourteen. Alumni include Joseph and Michael Haydn and Schubert.

The Sonoma County weather had turned cold but the twenty four youngsters emerged singing a Gregorian chant "to you I have lifted my soul” (Psalm 24) and warmed many hearts and captivated audience ears for upwards of two hours. Led by their remarkable conductor and pianist, Jimmy Chiang, they started with early repertoire in the first hour, gradually moving through the centuries as the concert unfolded. Mr. Chiang took some moments to greet the audience with great charm, and acknowledged that this Christmas program was somewhat early in the season. However, these boys in their sailor suits had traveled far and effortlessly moved the audience into a festive mood.

After the opening unison singing, a Sanctus by Jacobus de Kerle (1531-1591), provided a showcase for a cappella singing that filled the hall and was intriguing with complex dissonant voice leading. There was excellent variety of dynamics and tempo. Fux’s Salve Regina added Mr. Chiang as pianist, and he conducted from the piano which was positioned center stage with singers on either side. Joseph Haydn's "Mad and Useless Worries" was dramatic and vibrant with beautifully shaped vocal phrases.  Michael Haydn's "Anima nostra" has a text about our souls being set free like a bird from a net. Here the setting used a solo soprano juxtaposed with the full choir and then duo soloists alternating as well. Each song had the singers grouped in different configurations, often highlighting the contrasts between young boy soprano fragility and full rich treble harmonies.

A Mozart selection from a Cantata (K. 619) began with a recitative sung with pure child's voice and the special natural innocence often lost in the glories of trained professional adults. The Mozart was well performed with attention to rhythmical clarity and phrasing. The text is a marvel of profound thoughts on life, mankind and the world and wisdom sung by the young: "Love order and symmetry and harmony. Love yourselves and your brothers!" Mr. Chiang's accompaniments were were always balanced and delightfully nuanced, the playing of a consummate musician.

A special selection was next, a modern a cappella piece: Mercy-Forgiveness-Inner peace -Agnus Dei (1965), by Gerald Wirth, artistic director and president of the Vienna Boys Choir. A simple rising motive at the start led to a soaring descant over a drone, a staccato "miserere" and attractive jazzy syncopated figures. This was sung with commitment and fervor, and was a fine introduction to Mr. Wirth as a composer.

A second surprise was Lerner and Loewe's "On the Street Where You Live" from the Broadway show “My Fair Lady.” The thematic connection to Vienna was the fact the Loewe's family was from Vienna. The piano accompaniment was lively and the singers were relaxed and sang with enthusiasm. Further selections featured waltz and polka-inspired songs by Viennese composers Josef Strauss and Joseph Lanner. The choir sparkled and the music danced, describing in humorous texts the joys of traveling and a zoo coming to life in the night. Here, before intermission, the audience on their feet applauding vigorously.

After the break, standard Christmas carols, some arranged by Mr. Wirth, were performed with expert and polished singing and occasional choreography. A cappella versions of Adeste Fidelis and “Lo How a Rose” presented subtle dynamics with moments of wonderful quiet beauty. O Heiland, arranged by Mr. Wirth, was effective with its unison ending and Kletke's “Am Weinachtsbaum” contained a humming bagpipe effect as accompaniment, varying the verse textures. Two ecstatic pieces, a solo Schubert Ave Maria and Pueri Concinete by Ritter von Herbeck, soared through the hall and represented the Romantic tradition, followed by a touching arrangement of a Tyrolean lullaby, "It will be dark soon". 

The 20th century was ushered in with four movements of Britten's Ceremony of Carols, gracefully and expertly accompanied on the piano instead of harp.  Originally composed for treble voices, the tempo was often extremely brisk, providing intense energy interspersed with the sweet upper voice slower sections.

Wild clapping and shouts of appreciation brought three encores after a final and jazzy “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer.” A sweet “Silent Night” calmed the tumult. Then the choir sang “Goodbye, Aufwiedersehen” from the Broadway show “The Sound of Music,” with various groups waving and moving away. The last encore was a lively “Feliz Navidad” with the audience joining the boys' clapping.

These twenty four angels of song from Vienna presented an elegant and touching musical journey and brightened the early holiday season.

Nicki Bell contributed to this review.