REVIEW: The Vienna Boys Choir (Brisbane Festival) | Concert Hall
“Not angels, my lord, but Anglicans.”
Sellars and Yeatman’s mischievous misquotation of Pope Gregory’s comment on the little British boys in the Roman slave market in the sixth century has probably coloured our idea of boys’ choirs, because in Australia we are often visited by choristers from the great English cathedrals in their coloured cassocks, white surplices and frilled neck ruffs. So it’s a joy to see 25 cheeky little boys in sailor suits (a lovely irony coming from the land-locked country of Austria), singing just as beautifully, but not quite as piously, in two mind-blowing concerts.
The first program combines sacred and secular music, with Pergolesi’s spine-tingling Stabat Mater comprising the first half, and then a more joyful, often secular selection of old and soon-to-become favourites — O Fortuna from Carmina Burana, a Strauss waltz and a polka, a new setting by Elena Kats-Chernin of Australia’s unofficial anthem poem My Country by Dorothea McKellar , two exuberantly radical modern pieces by the Canadian composer R M Schaffer, and of course the obligatory bit of Schubert. And how could they leave out Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Pie Jesu, probably the only piece of religious music that most people recognise. Thank goodness we were spared Amazing Grace! But Pie Jesu has a great tune, even if it proves that Lloyd Webber will never be up there in the pantheon of the gods, and it was sung beautifully by I-don’t-know-which-one of those gleaming little boys.
Program A, which we heard in Brisbane, will be performed in Sydney and Melbourne only, and the other, slightly lighter Program B, goes to towns and cities in NSW, New Zealand, Queensland, Victoria and Darwin, as well as returning to Brisbane. This has some of the same items as in Program A, with the addition of some traditional Austrian songs, more Strauss waltzes, and selections from Victoria’s Tenebrae, truly something for everyone.
And what a joy those 25 glowing faces are — some of them look as if they should still be cuddling teddy bears. It’s worth buying the glossy program, too, so you can identify your favourites — mine is the bespectacled Elias, aged 10, with his sticky-out ears and sticking-up hair and the cutest dimples you’ve ever seen. And there’s also an interview with Clemens, aged 11, who reveals that at the moment he wants to be an archaeologist, and that his musical idols are Gerald Wirth, the artistic director, and their conductor Manolo Cagnin. “But I really like Falco (Rock me, Amadeus) and Mozart. They are both dead.”
This choir is a joy of both musicianship and personalities. At least a third of them get a solo piece, so it doesn’t seem to be very hierarchical, as many English choirs are. And they are of very different racial backgrounds — Asian, African and Indian as well as European — and of course audiences of the 1930s and ’40s wouldn’t have seen this eclectic range of faces.
But plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose, and while it’s wonderful to see how the choir has developed sociologically over the years, the range of timbres and the technical expertise are as good as they ever were. Do yourself a favour and catch them if you can.
The details: The Vienna Boys Choir performed at the Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre on September 9 (and returns with a different program on October 12). Their Australian tour runs until October 17 — check the company website for details.