In the United States, we don’t often get the chance to experience an institution that’s more than 500 years old. Someone from somewhere else has to bring it to us: an exhibition of the 2,44l-year-old treasures of Tutankhamun from Egypt; an exhibition of the 2,200-year-old clay soldiers from China.
We can experience the dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people if we travel to see the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park. But anything approaching a living institution is limited to the early settlements in Virginia or Massachusetts. But even in those places there are no inhabitants that have been part of a living tradition all those years.
That’s what makes the chance to hear the Vienna Boys Choir, which performed at the Friends of Music and the Arts concert at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension last Thursday, so special.
The choir has been in continuous existence since 1498. Made up of boys ages 10 to 14, the choir originally sang only for functions of the Habsburg Empire. In the early 1800s, composer Franz Schubert was a member of the choir.
In 1918, after the breakup of the empire, the Austrian government took over the court opera, the orchestra and the adult singers but chose to not take over the Boys Choir. In 1921, when Josef Schnitt became dean of the Imperial Chapel, he turned the Vienna Boys Choir into its own private institution.
Today, the choir’s 100 boys are divided into four choirs. One of the choirs is always in Vienna. The others tour the world.
Currently led by choirmaster Jimmy Chiang, the choir’s program at Ascension consisted of music they sing at the Imperial Chapel, including music by François Couperin, Jacobus de Kerle, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann.
Sometimes singing a cappella and sometimes with Chiang accompanying on the piano, the choir showed flawless execution and intonation. Their tone was as pure as a bell because their voices haven’t yet developed the characteristic vibrato of mature voices.
In addition to the classical music, the boys sang a delightful folk song from Styria, “Dr. Guggu” (“The Cuckoo”), arranged by VBC artistic director and president Gerald Wirth. Divided into three groups, “cuckoo” reverberated throughout Ascension’s wonderful sanctuary.
Vienna’s famous slower pace of life was celebrated in another arrangement by Wirth: Ferry Wunsch’s “Heut kommen d’Engerin auf Urlaub nach Wean” (“Today the angels come to Vienna for a holiday”).
There was also opera music from Bizet’s “Carmen,” Humperdinck’s “Hansel und Gretel,” and Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
More contemporary music was included with Billy Joel’s “Vienna” and Marc Shaiman’s “Hail, Holy Queen” from the movie “Sister Act.”
The last section on the program was reserved for Vienna’s famous Strauss family of composers: Josef Strauss and Johann Strauss II, with polkas and waltzes.
Then, to the delight of everyone, the choir sang encores of songs from “The Sound of Music.”
Information about other concerts presented by Friends of Music and the Arts can be found here.