A VISIT to Edinburgh by the Vienna Boys’ Choir promises the best in traditional choral music and chart-topping pop tunes too.
As BOY bands go, the 500-year-old world-famous Vienna Boys’ Choir has outlasted any modern-day pop combo you care to mention. For a start there are four of them – Vienna Boys’ Choirs that is – 100 boys in all, with any two or three of the 25-strong choirs touring the world at any given time. So busy is that touring schedule, there’s barely a moment when all four can to be found at the same time at their historic home – Vienna’s iconic Palais Augarten, gifted to the choir in 1948 .
As I write, the Brucknerchor (each touring outfit is named after a distinguished Austrian composer associated with the choir’s history) is in Australia and New Zealand, with Taiwan and Korea still to entertain on the way home; the Schubertchor is not long back from Japan; the Mozartchor is enjoying some home time in Vienna following recent jaunts to South America, Russia and Kuwait; while the Haydnchor is currently packing its cases for an imminent tour of the UK.
It’s the last of these that will interest us, as it is these boys of the Haydnchor who will raise the rafters of the Usher Hall in Edinburgh on 7 October, in an afternoon programme that is mostly what you’d expect from the sailor-suited choristers – motets by Mozart, Rheinberger and earlier Renaissance pieces by Gallus (a good Glasgow name) and Caldara, and no doubt music from the immortal Viennese waltzing Strausses, which is their trademark encore.
But prepare for one particular surprise. For in a part of the programme encompassing “Contemporary Vienna”, the boys will turn their characteristically fruity tones to the music of New York Bronx-born Billy Joel – his 1977 hit Vienna. Surely not. Isn’t that a bit like asking Julie Andrews and the Von Trapp kids to encore Doh! a deer with Rock around the Clock?
Not according to Gerald Wirth, overall artistic director of the Vienna Boys Choir. “Everyone expects us to sing Strauss,” he says. “We will do in Edinburgh what we usually do – some of that very traditionally based Central European repertoire that includes Renaissance motets, moving through Haydn, Mozart, and Brahms. But we will also incorporate music by Billy Joel, because he, as well as his song, has a close association with Vienna.”
There is, it seems, a family link. When Joel’s German-born father split from Billy’s mother in 1960, Howard Joel moved from America to Vienna, where he had another son, Alexander Joel, with his new wife in 1971. “Billy’s Vienna-born half-brother was a conductor in Vienna for many years,” Wirth explains. The younger Joel is now general music director of the Staatsorchester Braunschweig in Germany, having previously been musical director of the Deutsche Oper am Rhein.
Having visited the Vienna Boys’ Choir school some 12 years ago, I can see how natural a thing it is for these boys to sing modern-day pop ballads with the same stylistic acumen as Mozart or Haydn. For they really are just ordinary boys, who plaster their dorm walls with adolescent pin-ups, run around in jeans and trainers, and generally get up to all the same tricks as other boys of their age.
The cutesy sailor suits might transform their stage appearance, and the vocal strains may be cultured to a point of angelic perfection, but the excitable spirit of youth shines through in any of the 300 or so performances that each choir is likely to give in any year.
Wirth, himself, is an “old boy”, whose earliest musical training was as a member of the choir. As such he is fully in tune with the choir’s long-standing history, and a tradition that goes back to the days of Maximillian I of Hamburg, who established it as the body required to sing mass at the city’s Imperial Court, a duty any of the home-based choirs still undertake each Sunday.
On stage and on tour, however, the style is a little more relaxed: a result of pressure a decade ago to modernise in the face of criticism that standards were falling and that the boys, who had a long-standing arrangement with the Vienna State Opera to undertake roles, were being pulled out at the last moment because of tour commitments. Its reputation was also under the spotlight following accusations of abuse in the 1960s. It was during that low period – 2001 – that Wirth stepped in as artistic director, and it has been on his watch that the whole image of the choir has been transformed, both in the occasional wearing of more modern attire, and in repertoire that now includes the singing of (and dancing to) carefully selected pop song arrangements.
If anything reflects the choir’s success, it is surely the building of a new, state-of-the-art concert hall in the grounds of its Vienna home, due to open in December. And the clear evidence that international touring – proceeds from which account for a significant percentage of the revenue required to run this private institution – is at an all-time high.
No sooner will the choir visiting Edinburgh have returned to Vienna, then it is off again to America, where it will remain until Christmas. “We could actually start two or three more choirs and tour even more extensively,” says Wirth, whose regime has relaxed the process – though not the quality – of new entry for young boys, making it now a process that hinges on a period of trial rathern than a one-off, X-Factor-style audition. “If I have a feeling that a voice is healthy, he does a week with us to see how fast he develops, and equally important to see if he wants to do it. He will do a further probation period for anything up to a month.”
Nowadays, around 85 per cent of the boys are Austrian, with the other 15 per cent coming mainly from Australia, Japan, Malaysia and the USA. But the Vienna Boys’ Choir remains an icon of the preciously conservative city whose unrivalled classical music tradition is fundamental to its unique sound. Even allowing for the odd Billy Joel number.
• The Vienna Boys’ Choir performs at the Usher Hall on 7 October
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east