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On February 4, a couple of days after Groundhog Day, spring arrived in the auditorium at Louisburg College in the form of 25 young men, ages 10 to 14 – the Vienna Choir Boys – and their energetic leader. They are one of four groups that travel from the Augartenpalais, a baroque palace that houses the Wiener Sängerknaben School in Vienna, where they receive musical training and general education through their elementary years. They master a wide repertoire of classics, ranging from Viennese waltzes to Broadway to American gospel songs. A developing specialty of the group is the collection of world music they garner from their travels all over the earth.
After opening with a rather wimpy performance of "O Fortuna" from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana (which these tender youths probably had no business doing anyway), everything went pretty nicely uphill. The sound of the unbroken voices, fragile and pure as fine crystal, was beautifully displayed in Palestrina's "O vos omnes." They moved forward through the history of music from the Renaissance to the Classical era with fine performances of motets by Jacobus Gallus and Joseph Eybler. From 19th-century Romanticism they sang "Lift thine eyes unto the hills," from Mendelssohn's Elijah, and Fauré's beautiful "Ave verum." They reached the present with "Kyrie" and "Gloria" from a very fine contemporary Missa Brevis composed by their tour conductor and accompanist, Robert Rieder. This talented pianist, composer, and conductor, who also has major interests in jazz and is himself a former Vienna Choir Boy, is not yet quite thirty.
The first half of the concert concluded with a delightful sampling of world music from Israel, India, Mexico, Pakistan, Persia, and from Native Americans, with each number introduced by one of the boys from the choir. Especially impressive were a beautiful song from Israel and a driving rhythmic song from India (and the spirited young fellow who introduced it). Selected boys played a variety of percussion instruments to the enrichment of each selection. This segment of the concert left one with a unique sense of world community and a wistful fantasy of what it might be like to travel with this special troupe.
In the lobby during intermission, the Louisburg College Auditorium Guild served a pleasant array of refreshments to the near capacity audience. Mingling with the guests and supporters, one got a real sense of community involvement and pride in the Allen de Hart Concert Series. A lot of people put in much time and effort to bring this event to Louisburg College, and it seemed to be a gratifying and rewarding experience for all.
Upon returning to our seats, Vienna's bright children presented five American gospel songs in settings by a variety of composers. They sang with hardly a trace of accent, convincingly proclaiming the text with a sense of understanding and enthusiasm for the music. This group was followed by a Hungarian folk song by Zoltán Kodály that was, for this reviewer, the highlight of the concert. Kodály's lifelong fascination with and devotion to the folk music of his country paid dividends throughout his career as this music helped form his unique melodic and rhythmic signature style. This little song, "Túrot eszig a cigány," with its intricate rhythmic patterns, melodic twists and colorful harmony, was masterfully done. Robert Schumann's "Gypsy's life" was a another delight; it is the kind of music that may have been composed with the Vienna Choir Boys in mind – free spirited, full of life, exuberant. The choir traces its beginnings back to the last years of the 15th century, and great musicians who have been associated directly with the group include Heinrich Isaac, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Schubert, Hans Richter, and Clemens Kraus, just to name a few.
A set of three folk songs from the Alps gave the boys the opportunity to show us the stuff from home, the awesome Bavarian countryside, almost every scene of which is picture-postcard-worthy – the dance tunes and songs that reflect the spirit of the people. These playful and lovely songs led into the pride and the heart of Vienna – the music of Johann Strauss, Jr. They sang two polkas and concluded with "Roses from the South," one of those immediately recognizable waltzes that have a place in the heart and universal consciousness of all people everywhere.
The standing ovation from the audience was rewarded when Rieder returned to the stage to lead the group in a spirited rendition of a classic from American Broadway Theater, "There's no business like show business." The Vienna Choir Boys obviously enjoying being a part of that business on this occasion. The next day, it was back to the busses and planes and the studies they must maintain even when they are off as ambassadors of the treasures of music and the joy of singing. Long live the spirit of the City of Music! Long live the Vienna Choir Boys!