Vienna Boys Choir brings centuries of tradition to Miller Symphony Hall
They’ve sung for kings and emperors and worked with famous composers from Mozart to Britten. They’re been featured in films, released dozens of CDs and graced notable venues like Carnegie Hall.
Now the Vienna Boys Choir, world-renowned for their angelic voices, will perform Oct. 25 in Allentown.
The choir of boys age 10-14 who sing exquisite harmonies in unchanged voices, will bring “Journey Through the Americas,” a program of eclectic music from the middle ages to the present, to Miller Symphony Hall.
Vienna Boys Choir encompasses four touring groups of a total of 100 talented young singers who are admitted by audition from all over the world, including from Austria, China, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Korea and the United States. Between them, the four choirs give 300 concerts and performances each year before almost half a million people worldwide.
“This group that is coming is a very young group and they are quite endearing,” says Tina Breckwoldt, historian for the Vienna Boys Choir. “For most of them, this is their first time in United States and it is very exciting.”
The Vienna Boys Choir has a long history that can be traced back to boys singing at the Viennese court since the 14th century, but a choir was formally established at Vienna’s Imperial Chapel in 1498 by Emperor Maximilian I. Until 1918, the choir sang exclusively for the imperial court, at mass, concerts, private functions, and on state occasions.
In 1921, the choir was officially established as the Vienna Boys Choir. and the imperial uniform was replaced by sailor suits, then the height of boys’ fashion. The choir began to give concerts outside the chapel in 1926.
The choir has a close association with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. With members of the orchestra and the men of the Vienna State Opera Chorus, the choir continues the tradition of the imperial musicians and provide the music for the Sunday Mass in Vienna’s Imperial Chapel.
The choir runs a kindergarten for boys and girls in cooperation with the city of Vienna, Austria, then continues its program for grades 1 through 4, providing an all-around education for boys and girls.
At age 10, the most talented boys are selected to join the Vienna Boys Choir and enter the choir’s boys-only grammar school for grades 5 through 8 and live in the choir’s boarding school.
Each choir has a choirmaster and two tutors who travel with the boys.
Approximately 11 weeks of the school year are devoted to touring, and each choir member sings about 80 concerts a year. Many of the boys have fathers, uncles and even grandfathers who have also been members of the choir.
“They are all highly-motivated,” Breckwoldt says.
The boys are like boys anywhere, some of whom are quiet and some of whom are boisterous.
“They can be very different and it’s wonderful to see them come into their own and blossom,” she says. “When they come to the choir at 8 or 9, they may be shy at the beginning, but we see them develop. The beautiful thing is the choir accommodates all of them.”
She says the boys get regular voice training.
“The idea is that everyone has a voice that is unique,” Breckwoldt says. “With singing, the whole body is the instrument, which is why the sound each one creates is quite individual. The choir has these many different boys who come together to make music.”
She says the boys will perform a program conducted by Manuel Huber, “Journey Through the Americas,” which she describes as a “fusion of music of Western Europe and music that would have been heard in the New World.”
“We believe we have a duty to the boys to teach them as many different styles of music as possible,” Breckwoldt says.
Since the 1920s, the choir has collected music from all over the world.
The program includes plain song chant from Middle Ages that was taken to South America by Spanish composers, as well as Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” and a unique arrangement of “Amazing Grace.”
Breckwoldt says highlights include Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer’s composition in which the boys recreate the sounds of a Gamelin orchestra and American composer Aaron Copland’s “I Bought Me a Cat,” in which the choir imitates animal sounds.
Other American composers include the Sherman Brothers, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and George and Ira Gershwin.
There also is Native American music such as “Song of the Spirit Dance” by the Arapaho Nation and “Três cantos nativos dos Indios Krahó” by the Krahó Indians, as well a songs from South America.
And no Vienna Boys Choir would be complete without Austrian folk songs and Viennese waltzes by Strauss.
“It’s a whole lot of different types of music,” Breckwoldt says. “It’s a cultural exchange. They take music wherever they go.”
The choir has commissioned and produced a number of world music projects, like “Silk Road,” “Between Worlds,” “Inspiration” and “Pirates!”
“We do not claim to play ‘authentic’ world music. Instead, we create something from the original sources that is our own,” says Austrian composer Gerald Wirth, who writes and arranges music for the choir. “We want to be faithful to the source in the sense that we treat it with respect.”
The choir has been recording its music since 1907 and the boys have appeared on practically every major label. In 2015, the choir signed a partnership with Deutsche Grammophon. Their first joint project was their hugely successful Christmas CD, “Merry Christmas from Vienna.” Their newest CD “Strauss For Ever,” was released last year.
Breckwoldt says the minute the boys get on stage and start interacting with the audience is when “the magic happens.
“They are performers giving all they’ve got,” she says. “They bring music as their gift.”
Vienna Boys Choir presents “Journey Through the Americas,” 7:30 p.m. Oct. 25, Miller Symphony Hall, 23 N. Sixth St., Allentown. Tickets: Miller Symphony Hall box office, 23 N. Sixth St., Allentown; millersymphonyhall.org; 610-432-6715