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March 2, 2006

Vianna Boys disappoint

Wichtita Eagle (KS):

An appreciative audience heard a wide-ranging program of short classics, pop songs and folk songs Tuesday from the Vienna Choir Boys. The Choir Boys displayed all those traits that make them so beloved -- pure, angelic boy-soprano voices singing rich but gentle harmonies, a good technique honed at the choir's music school, and a disarming stage presence that included song introductions announced by several boys, and their trademark sailor shirts with black neckerchiefs, black slacks and shiny black shoes.

Perhaps because of the rigors of the road, the performance -- as charming as it tried to be -- often sounded rote. The choristers generated little excitement with their music making, and the pieces -- many just a couple minutes long -- did little to hold our attention. The evening failed to live up to one of the world's grandest traditions of choral singing.

The Vienna Choir Boys was founded in 1498, when the Austrian emperor Maximilian decreed that six boys should be among his coterie of court musicians. For over 400 years the choir boys sang exclusively for the court -- at balls and state functions, at Mass and in private concerts for the emperor. But in the 1920s they began giving public concerts and started touring around the world.

The choir is today a brand name -- famous for recordings and television specials, its singers familiar for their cherubic smiles and cute sailor suits. It is still based in Vienna, but now boasts about young choristers, ages 10 to 14, who are divided into four smaller touring choirs. An ensemble of 26 boys sang at Newman. The sold-out performance was one of a number the group gave around Kansas as part of an eight-week-long U.S. tour.

Some of the songs Tuesday seemed to inspire the young singers more than others -- the "Ave Verum Corpus" by Mozart vibrated with feeling, and Schubert's "Das Grosse Halleluja" was vibrant and dramatic. But whenever the music got a bit complicated -- in the tongue-tying German phrases in the folk song "Der Floh" ("The Flea"), or while navigating the contrapuntal lines in Mozart's "On the Death of a Nightingale," the sound was not as pristine, nor the technique as solid.

Some portions of the concert worked well -- a set of Austrian folk songs were presented with feeling (and with a hopping, clapping, stamping dance by six youngsters who changed into lederhosen). In a couple of novelty songs the boys mimicked monkeys and birds with uncanny accuracy.

But a version of Queen's "Hungarian Rhapsody," though well-sung, was downright strange -- it is, after all, an over-the-top rock anthem. Even the waltzes and polkas that ended the show lacked vigor. I wish some of the program had shed more light on the choir's history -- more Schubert, maybe -- or had let the boys delve into music with real feeling -- a longer a cappella motet or Mass, say -- instead of making them work so hard to entertain.

Posted by acapnews at March 2, 2006 12:09 AM