The Vienna Boys’ Choir Delight a London Audience

03/10/2012

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Vienna Boys’ Choir: Kerem Sezen conducting at the piano. Cadogan Hall, London, 2.10.2012 (JPr)

The Vienna Boys’ Choir (Wiener Sängerknaben) has existed for over 500 years and until 1918 sang exclusively for the imperial court but since the 1920s has been a private institution. It is a non-profit school for about 100 boys and their current artistic director is Gerald Wirth who controls a team of choir masters, tutors, chaperones and teachers. The Choir Boys have their own school, housed in the Augartenpalais that was given to the school after the Second World War. At the time Vienna did not have the resources to restore the damaged palace but the Choir was one of the few cultural organizations with enough money to undertake its restoration. Now it has a co-educational nursery school and elementary school that naturally includes intensive music instruction in its curriculum and an emphasis on singing. From around the age of 10 the boys who will be future choir members live in the Choir’s boarding school and attend the grammar school. All the girls at the elementary school have the chance to participate in an all-girl choir in the ‘Chorschule’ that has also done some touring and might be further developed in future years. Since 2010 there has been a new senior school for both boys and girls designed to prepare young singers for university and a possible future career in music.

The 100 choristers between the ages of 9 and 14 are divided into four choirs of 25 named after the most famous Austrian composers, Bruckner, Mozart, Haydn and Schubert. Each has its own choir director, as well as a female and a male tutor/chaperone. To help raise funds for the institution the four choirs give about 300 concerts a year, reaching an audience of nearly half a million people. They are used to gala events in some of the world’s most prestigious concert halls. It was then somewhat of a surprise to find the Vienna Boys’ Haydn Choir, under their conductor Kerem Sezen, at the smallish Cadogan Hall – and it was a disappointment that London concertgoers could not come out in greater numbers to welcome them.

I must admit more than just a passing interest in all things Viennese as my late mother was born in the city and visiting it so many times in the past has made it something of a ‘second home’ to me. It was wonderful to read a quote attributed to Mahler ‘When the world comes to an end, I shall move to Vienna. Everything happens fifty years later there!’ and there is some truth that time does seem to stand still in the Austrian capital. Apart, maybe, from a few moments during a regular Sunday Mass in the Imperial Chapel I have never heard them in a concert, so this was a first for me and therefore somewhat of a nostalgic evening. This was especially so when they sang in English Billy Joel’s Vienna that ends with the lines ‘When will you realize, Vienna waits for you!’ … I hope it will and I can be back there soon. Actually singing something in the language of their audience appears to be a feature of the Choir’s international concerts.

When the 25 boys of a variety of sizes took to the platform in their white sailor suits and shining black shoes, it is clear how in recent years the Choir has welcomed choristers of a range of ethnic and religious backgrounds from very many other countries other than just Austria – a situation very different to what would have been seen early in the twentieth century. The programme they brought was divided into four sections: Music from the Chapel Imperial, Romantic Vienna, Contemporary Vienna and Songs from Vienna. The concert covered core choral repertoire – Joseph Haydn’s Insanae et vanae curae, his younger brother Michael’s Anima nostra and Mozart’s Più non si trovano. There were also romantic songs such as Brahms’s Vier Gesänge. We also heard some contemporary music by Billy Joel (Vienna, The Longest Time, This Night) as well as traditional songs from Vienna (Kreisler’s Taubenvergiften [Poisoning Pigeons], Schubert’s Der Gondelfahrer  and Johann Strauss’s Tritsch Tratsch Polka), amongst much other music.

It was a delight to glory in their schooling and musicianship as they sang in various groupings with the occasional solo. (I wish I could name individual singers but there was no information about them in the printed programme.) If I was being hypercritical I would have liked to have seen more personality from the individual members of the Choir. I have no idea how much travelling they are doing but they looked a little tired and occasionally sounded it. They seemed at their happiest when ‘let off the leash’ with boys conducting and playing the piano during the Mozart Notturno with Kerem Sezen, singing bass or engaging in the high jinks during one of the Wienerlied and the first of the encores. They were mostly directed throughout by Sezen at the piano though I wished the Choir had looked out more towards the audience without having to concentrate so much on him.

Some of the best moments for me concluded the first half in the contemporary section with an eloquently unaccompanied Der Traum der Armen from Bernhard Philipp Eder, a spirited rendition of Balduin Sulzer’s Laudate Dominum and that ever-so poignant Vienna by Billy Joel. The latter did hint a bit that the Choir is edging towards something more marketable to attract audiences in the twenty-first century. Their wonderfully impassioned singing of Rainhard Fendrich’s modern anthem I Am From Austria followed by Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody accompanied by one of the Choir doing a Brian May impression on his electric guitar, confirmed this idea. This brought the evening to a fun conclusion but what the more traditionalists amongst the Cadogan Hall audience made of this I can only but wonder.

 

Jim Pritchard

 

For further details about future choral events at the Cadogan Hall visit www.cadoganhall.com/choral.

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