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ContentsVienna Boys Choir Goes Pop
Boyd Pehrson wrote (October 21, 2002):
"Vienna Boys Choir Goes Pop" is the newest CD release by the famous Vienna Boys' Choir. It is the first ever all popular music album the 500 year old choir has recorded. The choir sings pop songs by Backstreet Boys, Madonna, The Police, Earth Wind & Fire, Enya, The Beatles, The Bangles, and The Talking Heads among others. I am sorry to say, in my opinion the songs are poorly sung regarding the usual high standards of the Vienna Boys Choir, who had to unlearn classical lessons for this popular approach. The arrangements do not do justice to the abilities of the choir institute and its historic standards. The music accompaniment is electronic instrumental for the most part and utterly limited in appeal.
My hope was that this CD would have that great Vienna Choir Boys standard of top shelf approach. After all, the King's Singers have done marvellous arrangements of Pop tunes, and groups like Les Boreades of Quebec have taken Beatles music and dignified the catchy melodies by arranging them into Baroque style. Such was not the case here with the Vienna Boys' Choir. Arrangements on this new pop CD are thin, and unison singing and long electronic instrumental segments abound. The CD is geared to sound as much like the original versions as possible and an attempt is made to tailor fit the Vienna Boys Choir with the songs. This approach has at times alarming consequences, and the mildew scent of "Eurotrash" is brought instantly to the American mind. In the credits the arrangements for choir and strings are noted and "everything else was performed by the producer and a PC". The songs are very electronic in approach, and while the Vienna Boys' Choir sings as well as they can under the circumstances, the pieces do not compliment boys' voices. One can think of the great popular success of Libera, where the recordings of Libera are ingeniously arranged by Robert Prizeman especially to capture and highlight the unique qualities of boys' voices and from classical compositions. But in this new departure CD "Vienna Boys Choir Goes Pop" Richard Oesterreicher with the help of VBC Director Gerald Wirth have ventured into pop boy performer territory. Thus they have departed from their raison d'être, that of Hofburgkapelle knaben and as ambassadors of Vienna. They don't do Pop well, but many other children do, and without introverted sailor suits! Once the VBC leave their raison d'être behind, they are only competing with the child pop bands. One Schubert or Mendelssohn piece well sung on the CD would have reminded all of what the Vienna Boys Choir can do, and are about. Yet on this CD they sound no better, and at times worse than any children's pop group or aping choir out there. De Buddy's leaps to mind when I hear this new Vienna Boys Choir CD.
The sleeve notes tell us the seeds for this project were sown while the VBC was in studio during 1999 recording the choral parts for the movie soundtrack for The Thirteen Floor. Thirteenth Floor's director was said to have been impressed with the boys' work; the sound engineer Richard Oesterreicher overheard the movie's producer say "they should record pop music". Richard Oesterreicher let the idea roll around in his head and presented his idea to WSK Director Gerald Wirth. Richard Oesterreicher and a team from EMI records worked with Wirth to determine which pop tracks should be sung on the CD. Soon Wirth and boys from 3 WSK choirs found themselves in studio in a semi-circle around microphones, headphoned and bopping to pop music.
Regarding the question of a mix of Choirboys and pop music, sound engineer turned producer Richard Oesterreicher answers: "if you put the two together they'll really fizz". In this case I think they have really fizzled. The mix of pop music and choirboys has been well explored with the likes of Drakensberg Boys' Choir and Libera. I hope I do not sound like a prude, and it is unfortunate that an anti-establishment culture drives me to qualify my opinions so, but why is it that the fine tradition of the Vienna Choir Boys, who embody charm and musical beauty would venture into the territory of commercial pop music which is already glutted with boy bands, and children's choirs performing and recording popular songs? From whence heralds such a new tradition? This CD is now a part of the Vienna Choir Repertoire, but it seems mostly a self indulgent exploration on the part of the Producer and an insistence by VBC director Gerald Wirth to explore "new music" with the choir apparently without much thought to history or posterity. One ponders the cost in time and training for such an effort, in an institute that is struggling to find its way in a generation lost in its own introverted persuits. This CD is one lacking maturity, and the grace and musical beauty that embodies the Vienna Boys Choir is not present. Let us hope this is not a signal of where this choir will be going for the future, lest future conductors of Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Mahler performances be tempted to look to Bavaria in order to find a dignified choir for their stages. It used to be that the rest of the choir world wanted to imitate the Vienna Boys' Choir. Now perhaps it is the Vienna Boys' Choir Director who wishes the choir was like the rest of the world. We shall miss the old choir, that dear friend of charm and beauty in music.
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Vienna Boys Choir Goes Pop; Arranged and conducted by Gerald Wirth and Richard Oesterreicher. Recorded in Vienna, Austria Spring 2002.
Vienna Boys' Choir, 09/17/2002 EMI Classics 57367
1. My Heart Will Go On
2. All You Need Is Love
3. Get Down
5. Power of Goodbye
6. Nothing Else Matters
7. Nothing Compares to You
8. Message in a Bottle
10. Eternal Flame
11. Burning Down the House
12. Only Time
Matthew Neugebauer wrote (October 25, 2002):
[To Boyd Pehrson] First off, I want to say that I wholeheartedly agree with Boyd on this issue-its simply ridiculous.
However, I think the respect that the VBC and other boys choirs have gained through the centuries heralds a positive outlook as well as an admonishment.
I think its not just ridiculous, but also hilarious, and enjoying that way. As well, this type of bathos (a word I learned today in English class!) can also be looked at as an experiment-just trying something out whose result we can't possibly know for sure unless it was undertaken.
I just hope they never try to pull a stuint like that again. lol.
Boyd Pehrson wrote (October 25, 2002):
[To Matthew Neugebauer] Thanks for your comments. Your observation about the absurdity factor is a good point. In my opinion it comes across as would Prince Charles playing "air guitar". Smile. I think the future of boychoir rests in its past- the fact that modern humans have only sung about 300 out of the 3000 works of Orlando Di Lasso means there is plenty for boys to do in the realms designed for them- I am confident that some choir will mine the remaining mountain of works of Palestrina et al, the Spanish Baroque in the Americas etc. as for two tiny examples. There is so
much left to do! Who will step forward and do it? Who can? Who is willing and eager? The new compositions keep rolling in- Edward Higginbottom and the Choir of New College have released a new CD titled "In Excelsis" which has renaissance and modern copositions on the same CD- they tend to compliment each other-these compositions have a lot in common by Tavener and Harvey.The CD is simply superb in singing, and the repertoire not easy stuff! This will be the 7Oth plus CD by Higginbottom and this choir!
Meanwhile my nephew asked me why the Vienna Boys Choir with its astounding tradition and very prestigious reputation is playing concerts in such places as Blythe California, and San Bernadino. (Blythe is a small desert town next to a dead sea,
and San Bernadino's reputation is not good locally due to high criand low income). It will be interesting to see how all this plays out.
One may listen to samples of "Vienna Boys Choir Goes Pop" at this web site address:
Matthew Neugebauer wrote (October 25, 2002):
[To Boyd Pehrson] I listened to a few of the samples, and while hearing a treble solo sing the verse to "All you need is love" then hearing the choir sing the chorus, I cracked up! That was hilarious!
I don't think we should be worried at all about boys choirs-as Boyd said, there's so much more to do-once there isn't, and I'm not there to write more, then we should start worrying-but how long is that gonna take?
Wiener Sängerknaben Beckman Auditorium 2002
Boyd Pehrson wrote (October 28, 2002):
Here is a little review of the Wiener Sängerknaben concert from Friday Oct. 25th held at Beckman Auditorium on the campus of California Institute of Technology, Pasadena California.
After enjoying some sunny days in the desert gardens of Arizona, and now under cold and wet conditions, the Vienna Boys' Choir braved the fast and angry freeways of Los Angeles and arrived safely in Pasadena's Beckman Auditorium. The 1150 seat theater was filled nearly to capacity. I was accompanied by my nephew and his wife, both in their twenties, and they were seeing the Wiener Sängerknaben perform live for the first time.
The house lights dimmed and, entering from both sides, the Schubertchor walked slowly on to the modestly sized Beckman stage and surrounded the Blüthner grand piano. The Schubertchor's young Director Robert Rieder next entered the stage and began the concert. With the rise and fall of his hand the choristers began to sing a Purcell birthday song composed for Queen Mary in the 17th Century. The highly ornamented piece was a nice representation of Purcell style and the easy to understand text in English was welcomed by an appreciative audience.
Next was a bouncing Renaissance Christmas motet by Jacobus Gallus: "Natus est nobis", (for us He is born). This was especially charming sung by Viennese boys in clean white sailor shirts, here in the 21st century. After this a true gem was revealed, a cantata-like motet titled "Cantate Domino" composed by one of Bach's mentors Dietrich Buxtehude. The programme notes reminded us that Bach had once walked 250 miles to meet Buxtehude. This motet is peppered with brief solos and choral phrases that give it the feel of a cantata. The piece is absolutely exquisite and the Vienna soprano soloist was in his full vocal richness. The text is from Psalm 105- "Sing a new song unto the Lord". The song was new to me and a treat to hear. The arrangement is for sopranos and bass, the bass parts here were sung by the altos of the Schubertchor. I hope to one day find a recording of this piece sung by boys and men, with the continuo added. I think this may be BuxWV 12. I strongly recommend any boychoir to take on this beautiful piece.
Next was a well travelled motet by Felix Mendelssohn, Laudate pueri, part of three
motets originally written for women's voices. Afterward, a modern "Gloria" from a German Mass written for boys' voices & organ by an Augustinian monk was presented. This was combined with another modern piece, an "Hosanna" by Nystedt. It was clear at this point that the Beckman acoustics were stealing some resonance from this Schubertchor's coy tones. This choir did not have the very well developed tone traditionally cultivated in the Vienna Boys' Choir ranks. Also, traditional stage discipline was, at times relaxed in what seems to be a "softer and gentler" approach to choir training by the WSK artistic staff.
The result seems to be a choir with a new spirit of trepidation that was not present in times past. Compounding the issue was a poor acoustic quality at the Beckman which is primarily a venue for amplified use, not for a treasured un-assisted choral sound. I have been to many very large halls where speaking from the stage unamplified sounds rich and vibrant. So, such stages do exist out there. The exclusive management company for the WSK's American tours would do well to visit a better venue for each concert, this is two out of the last three WSK concerts I have attended in severe acoustic limitations. Upcoming venues for this tour do not look any more promising regarding the acoustics. The pieces were sung well, but applied to the anticipated standard of the Vienna Boys' Choir tradition there was disappointment. Interestingly, the choir used books for several pieces in the concert - something I haven't see the WSK do very often.
Next, the choir removed themselves from stage and the stage was re-set for the operetta "Reflections on "The Journey of the Little Prince"" by WSK Artistic Director Gerald Wirth, here staged in highlights- as an abbreviated version of the 1995 children's opera "The Journey of the Little Prince" by 38 year old Wirth, a former Vienna Choir Boy.
Wirth's "The Journey of the Little Prince" is an adaptation for stage of the story of the Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The 'highlights' operetta was partly a victim of the small Beckman stage, and also of the poor acoustics at the Beckman. Solos were sung well in one sense, and yet poorly projected in another. In one scene a solo chorister is directed to sing disguised behind an oriental folding fan, his voice thus at times barely audible to many in the auditorium. One not only strained to hear at times but strained to see as well. There was beside the piano, a large Gong as well as chairs and some other percussion instruments that two choristers use for the play. These filled up on side of the stage and blocked a chunk of the orchestra seats from view. I was 25 feet from the stage and could not see much; and I heard less, partly due to acoustic problems and partly due to the banging of the Gong during dramatic solo moments!
I was relieved at intermission, the operetta now over, and I looked forward to Alpine Folk songs and Strauss' Waltzes. The second half of the concert did not disappoint in repertoire. Two Austrian folk songs were presented that are interesting and unusual compositions, and if well sung will be a treat to find on the WSK's upcoming new Austrian German Folk Song CD. I am happy to say Strauss Jr. was enthusiastically sung by the choir who were clearly now on more familiar territory. Schubertchor Director Robert Rieder remained a gracious and charming host throughout the concert, his piano technique was unassuming and he was sensitive to the acoustic equation of the concert site. Director Rieder gave in to audience demands for an encore, once, and then again a second time.
The first encore was of a poular American Evangelical worship song by Rick Founds titled "Lord I Lift Your Name on High" (1989, Maranatha Music). The text was sung accompanied by hand gestures, produced by the entire choir, that emphasized words of the text. Presumably this is a peek into the programme designed for the many Evangelical church concerts scheduled for this Schubertchor's tour. The audience erupted into wild cheers, and it was evident that they loved the pop gospel format- interesting, for Caltech is certainly anything but an "Evangelical Christian venue"! This audience reaction not only surprised me but also seemed to take the choirboys by surprise who reacted with raised eyebrows and amused grins. I guess the idea of a child -like faith, or the child in prayer still affects the heart of even the scientific community. The final encore, a fast polka, reminded all invloved of who was visiting from Vienna, and left me with the sense that the Vienna Choir still knows where they call home. Though it is clear now, that the Vienna Boys Choir is not the bullet-proof musical institution it has been known to be. I reservedly recommend the current Schubertchor's concert tour, only die hard fans might want to avoid taking in multiple performances.
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Vienna Boys' Choir
Beckman Auditorium, Caltech Pasadena CA
October 25th, 2002 8:00 p.m.
1) 6th Ode for the Birthday of Queen 1694
Come Ye Sons of Art (excerpts)
(Henry Purcell, 1659-1695)
2) Natus est nobis
(Jacobus Gallus, c.1550-1591)
3) Cantate Domino
(Dietrich Buxtehude, 1637-1707)
4) Laudate pueri, op. 39, 2
(Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, 1809-1847)
5) "Gloria" from Deutsche Messe
(Augustinus Franz Kropfreiter, B. 1936)
(Knut Nystedt, B. 1915)
7) Reflections on "The Journey of the Little Prince"
(Gerald Wirth, B. 1965)
8) Widerspruch, op. 105, 1. D.865
(Franz Schubert, 1797-1828)
9) Zigeunerleben, op. 29, 3
(Robert Schumann, 1810-1856)
10) Two Easter Pictures, H. 112
(Gustav Holst, 1874-1934)
11) Folk songs from the Austrian Alps
12) Polkas and waltzes
(Johann Strauss Jr., 1825-1899)
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