Saturday, May 30, 2009

I had a small problem the other night and took a trip to the emergency room where I thought I would have a quick EKG and go home, but they wanted to keep me for tests the next day. They have a torture device there called a treadmill. A few more seconds on that and I would have confessed to being a terrorist.
Anyway, the day was boring and a little worrisome but I had my iPod and I learned just how comforting it can be listening to boys singing spiritual songs.
For example, Hear my Prayer from the Choir of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, with treble Jeremy Budd.

One of the very first songs that I heard and one that drew me to this sort of music was Stanford’s Magnificat in G sung by Jeremy Budd. I came across a clip of it on YouTube and I thought it was a really pretty song so I bought the CD and one thing led to another. Before I knew it I was hooked.
Jeremy has a nice voice and he does a fine job with Miserere, Magnificat, Feast Song for St Cecilia, and I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes.
The only unfortunate thing here is that his voice doesn’t come through as strong as it should on other parts of this CD. In the title song the choir sings much louder than him, but I don’t think it’s weakness on his part. Maybe the producer could have balanced it better in the recording studio or, too, maybe that’s just the way it sounds in the cathedral. It’s not bad, it’s just that I’ve heard better.

Still, it's a good CD and if anyone is looking for great choir music you can’t go wrong with St Paul’s Cathedral. They are always in the top tier of cathedral choirs and they sound great here.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

I hate it when I ask a question or try and tell a friend about some new discovery of mine and the friend says, “Didn’t you know that? I knew that years ago”, with a tone in his voice that hints at an unspoken ‘stupid’. That’s when I hit him.

This is probably something that I am the last person in the world to find but there is a great website called Boy Soprano and it has a long list of boy singers.
They provide some biographical information on all of them and some sample music by many. I’m still working my way through it but I found a great singer that I didn’t know about. His name is Bejun Mehta, a cousin of conductor Zubin Mehta. I bought his CD titled Songs and Arias of Handel, Schubert, Brahms and Britten and it came in the mail today. This was recorded in 1982 when Bejun was 14 and nearing the end of his soprano career. Fortunately it was recorded digitally on tape so the sound quality is good.

There is a quote on the cover by Leonard Bernstein, “It is hard to believe the richness and maturity of musical understanding in this adolescent boy.”
Bejun’s voice was made to sing opera and he sounds surprisingly like a female soprano. In fact, if you didn’t know it was a boy singing you probably wouldn’t guess. He sings passionately with the authority of a mature singer who has years of experience.

Some things from the liner notes that other people have said are, from the LA Times critic, “…incredible sophistication and sensitivity. Here was a technique that could do florid things and diminuendos on high notes. Here was an artist with an extraordinary sound the likes of which I don’t think I’d heard before” and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas called him an extraordinary prodigy.
He has “the unique gift of an inborn mezza-voce technique” so he can move between the highs and lows while maintaining a consistent quality. In February of 1983 he in New York he gave a recital that was both his debut and farewell. He was fourteen and shortly after began to mature. Prior to that his family wanted him to have a normal childhood so he only performed at local concerts in Michigan. I think this may be his only recording, but I’m not sure about that.

The CD had Britten’s The Last Rose of Summer and Schuberts’ The Shepard on the Rock (which has an amazing ending). Some Handel songs are If God Be For Us, Where’er You Walk, With Thee the Unsheltered Moor I’d Tread, and others. His choices from Brahms were Ladybug, My Sweetheart Has Rosy Lips, Down Deep in the Valley and A tree is Standing.
This is really worth getting.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

I’ve been reading from Alan Mould’s book The English Chorister, a History and he has some fascinating stories.
In the middle ages the boys of the choir were called upon to act in certain church plays. Boys took the place of monks as the women and the angel in the Easter play where the Maries come to Christ’s tomb. There are records of choirboys acting in the play Zaccheus and in the Play of Saint Nicholas but the really funny one was this one.

“Perhaps the most comic example comes from Lincoln where, in the Drama of the Prophets, a boy was tied beneath a real donkey, from which unbecoming position he was required to speak (or perhaps sing) the words uttered by Balaam’s ass.”
I always hear it referred to as Balaam’s ass, but couldn’t they just say Balaam’s donkey? Fewer people would giggle.

An interesting role that I’ve never heard of was the Boy Bishop, part of what was widely known as the Feast of Fools. That was a medieval custom that took place during the days between Christmas and New Year’s Day and was derived largely from of the pre-Christian revels from those times. A day was giver over to different groups in the church but the day given to the sub-deacons saw the most outrageous misuse of the liberties given to them. There is a report from 1445 that Gould cites.

“Priests and clerks may be seen wearing masks and monstrous visages at the hours of office. They dance in the choir dressed as women, pandars and minstrels. They sing wanton songs. They eat black puddings at the horn of the altar while the celebrant is saying mass. They play at dice there. They cense with stinking smoke from the soles of old shoes. They run and leap through the church, without a blush at their own shame. Finally they drive about the town and its theatres in shabby traps and carts and rouse the laughter of their fellows and the bystanders in infamous performances, with indecent gesture and verses scurrilous and unchaste.”

These things were eventually banned except for the festivities on Holy Innocent’s Day which was the choristers’ day when the choristers elected a Boy Bishop. He was later enthroned and feasted and presided over the offices for twenty-four hours. In January he would make a visitation which delighted the populace and garnered the boy a considerable amount of money.

It was all a serious ceremony and sounds like it would have been fun to see. Too bad it isn’t practiced today, but maybe someone could petition for it to be returned.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

I was kicking around on Amazon the other day, looking for something by the Tolzer Knabenchor, when I came across this CD of the Mozart opera Apollo and Hyacinthus. It sounded like it would be fun so I ordered it and it arrived on Tuesday. I love it. I knew that in the 1700’s the roles of women in the opera were played by boys but this is the first time I’ve heard them do it.

The boys here are Christian Fliegner, 13, Sebastian Pratchske, 12, both sopranos; Christian Gunther, 12, and Philipp Cieslewicz, 13, both altos;
Markus Schafer, tenor and Christian Immier, basse.
My first thought was ‘they sound so cute’.

The liner notes on this one are in Russian so I went to the internet to find out more about it. While I was there I found a couple of clips on YouTube showing Allan Bergius and Panito Iconomou, both of der Tolzer Knabenchor, singing the Zephyrus aria and dressed in period 18th century costumes. They not only sound cute, they look adorable. Especially little Allan Bergius in that pink gown and blond wig. It made me smile so much I wish I could see an entire production.
There are other clips from that production on YouTube as well.

Apollo and Hyacinthus was written in 1767 ,when Mozart was 11 years old. It is Mozart's first true opera and is based upon the Greek mythology story about Hyacinth being struck on the head and killed by a discus thrown by the god Apollo. It was the wind god Zephyrus who was actually responsible for the Hyacinth's death because Zephyrus, out of jealousy, blew the discus off course in order to injure and kill Hyacinth. When he died, Apollo made the Hyacinth flower spring out from his spilled blood.

The music and singing in this CD are excellent and even non-opera fans would like it.

Monday, May 18, 2009

A Cappella: in the Chapel style

Music is an integral part of the choir experience except when the choir sings a cappella and then the voices take the place of the instruments. It's surprising how well that works. Sometimes I've listened to half a CD before realizing that there is no music. It’s great the way certain harmonies can replace the other instruments so effectively.

A particularly good a cappella CD that I have is Cantate Domino by the German choir Knabenchor Capella Vocalis, Reutlingen.
They have a web page: and this is taken from their site:
"The boys' choir Capella vocalis e. V. has existed since 1992.
…This choir is special in a number of ways: it is not linked to any religion, nor is part of a communal institution - Capella vocalis is an independent choir… financed solely with the member's fee and sponsoring.”
“The boys sing religious and secular music and perform in churches as well as at numerous other venues, such as large private functions or official receptions.Capella vocalis does not have a central meeting-point. Parts of the choir practice in Reutlingen, others in Besigheim and its region. This not only means that potential members can be recruited from a larger area - an important requirement for a successful choir - but also that they can meet and practice more easily. In each of the choir's age-groups the singers receive solo and group training.A new course for beginners starts two or three times a year."

This CD has music by Grieg, Buckner, Bach and Mendelssohn, but also by some German names that are new to me, such as Hugo Distler (Es Ist Das Heil Uns Kommen her), Siegfried Reda (Herr, Ich Habe Lieb) and Heinrich Kaminski (Psalm 130)

This is very different from most of my other CD’s and I like that. Different can be good, sometimes really good.

Friday, May 15, 2009

It seems a shame that boys can work so hard to perfect their singing only to have those beautiful treble voices fall prey to maturity. Opera singers can have a career that lasts for decades but a boy has only a few fleeting years in which to shine. Sometimes I wish they could stay young forever, but I may have found a solution to this persistent and vexing problem.

I was at my niece’s birthday party and we were sucking the helium out of some balloons and talking like Alvin the Chipmunk, as helium will make one do. I started singing Pie Jesu and to my surprise it sounded pretty darn good. I was no Tom Cully but it wasn’t bad. I’m thinking that if they put a small tank of helium on a boy’s back under the choir robe and ran a tube up to his mouth, perhaps disguised as a microphone, then the lad wouldn’t have any trouble hitting E above high C. Unless, of course, he passes out from lack of oxygen.

Yes, a treble’s career is sadly short but then so is life. I suppose we just have to enjoy life and music while they last.

One choir that I think sounds especially youthful is the Choir of the Abbey School, Tewkesbury on their 2001 CD Favourite Hymns for All Seasons. This is one of the youngest choir schools in Britain, founded in 1973 and they did a lot of touring.
I say did because the Abbey school closed on 15 July 2006 at which point the choir moved to Dean Close Preparatory School, Cheltenham and was renamed 'Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum', a choir of men and boys which sings the weekday services in Tewkesbury Abbey.

The choristers moved to Dean Close Preparatory School, Cheltenham in September 2006 when The Abbey School closed. They have a cd titled ‘The Three Kings’, a Christmas album, that is supposed to be good. I have it on order so we’ll see. I’m sure it’ll be great.
Some of the songs on the Favorite Hymns cd were familiar ones like I Vow To Thee, My Country, There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy and O Little Town of Bethlehem, but I’m always happy to find songs that I haven‘t heard before.
I, the Lord of Sea and Sky is so stirring and Sweet Sacrament Divine is a really pretty song. There is one called I Would Be True that uses the tune to Danny Boy. I looked it up and learned that the tune has been used several times before Danny Boy, something I didn’t know.

There are three soloists, Adam Jondelius, Toby Marshall, both trebles and James Mustard, bass. They are all just charming. One voice sort of leads the way on most of the songs and I’m not sure which one it is, but the boy has a wonderful tone.
This CD is sort of addictive.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

I am in awe of musicians. How wonderful it must be to pick up an instrument and make music. Those who can do it probably won’t understand how envious we are, those who, like me, are musically inept. But I guess someone has to be the audience.
It’s amazing the way the members of an orchestra make such complex and interesting sounds and then combine those sounds with all the others at just the right time, all blending together into something grand.
But it’s not just orchestras. Just to play the piano nicely would be great, or the church organ, or a guitar, a sax, an accordion… well, maybe not so much the accordion.

The choirs I have seen and heard use a wonderfully wide variety of music.
I know I’ve mentioned it before but I like it when a big pipe organ, like the one at King’s College, is played loud on a stereo with a good sub-woofer, one that can shake the walls. On their Heavenly Voices CD there is the final number by Karg-Elart that takes the bass notes down into a subsonic range and vibrates through me and makes the neighbors dogs bark. It feels good.

Libera’s DVD from their Leiden concert features a small but gorgeous orchestra along with, of course, Fiona Pears in that slinky black gown, and her beautiful violin.

The orchestra in Les Choristes en Concert is larger and they do some fancy things I’ve never seen like plucking the violin strings with their fingers. The percussionist uses some odd instruments and in one song he keeps time with a couple of smooth palm-sized river stones (a type of rock music I guess).

Saint Johns’ College Ave Verum DVD features their really talented organist, but the choir also does a couple of numbers with just a cello and a harp, a nice combination.

I have a version of Amazing Grace by the Vienna Boy’s Choir that incorporates a surprising electric guitar and a guitar also plays a large role in some of the American Boychoir songs.

When I saw the Vienna Boy’s Choir last fall I was a little surprised that most of the songs were a cappella while only a few were accompanied by the piano. Those kids are great with or without music.

The thing is, I am grateful to all of the musicians of the world for what they give us. What would the world be like without music?
I made a couple of mistakes.

I thought that because the stat counter at the bottom of this page was approaching 2,000 visits that I was saying something interesting, something fun that people liked reading. It looks like I was wrong, that was one mistake.

The other one was in actually looking at the stats. I didn’t know I could see more information until someone pointed it out to me so I got curious and looked. Turns out that only about 3 or 4 people read this blog more than once. About 85 percent of the visits are one-time only; people who glance at it and move on.

Suddenly it’s not as much fun as before. Oh well, it was only an experiment anyway. Thanks to those few people who were kind enough to leave comments.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

I probably shouldn't have bothered a monk... after I made a previous comment about the monk taking a vow of silence in response to my request for information about their choir, Dom David of Downside Abbey did respond and thought it was an amusing comment.
He had passed my request on to their music director, Christopher Tambling, who is still being mum (so no down side Kelsey). Oh, well. I don’t want to annoy them because I understand they have friends in high places.


First was the CD of Silk Road by the Vienna Boy’s Choir, which I have mentioned in a previous post, but now I have the DVD of Silk Road. It's not what I expected but it's still really good. The premise is that they are going to make a movie and are deciding which boy will play the lead. The weird thing is that we never actually see the movie they are pretending to make.
There is no story line here, no plot. Instead, we get a fascinating look at the inner workings of the world of the Vienna Boys Choir. We see where they live, where they sleep, where they sing. It's a beautiful palace, inside and out, and it’s very well maintained.

There are a lot of scenes of practice sessions, both individual and group, and a lot of the boys are introduced and interviewed. The boys are not all from Austria or even Europe; there are a few from America, some from Japan, Congo and other places. They talk about being homesick sometimes and being so nervous on stage that their knees shake and how much they like the friends they have made at the school. They have names like Kay Olugbenga, Hibiki Sadamatsu, Tilman Tuppy. I recognized some of them from the Hydenchor’s tour last fall.

Also, we get to see them traveling to China, eastern Europe and other really fun, exotic places where they meet people and sing with them and learn their music. A good bit of the filming is done in the studio with the green screen background but a great deal of the trips are real.

How exciting would that be to be twelve and going to the desert to wear Bedouin robes and ride camels or wandering around the market place of a Chinese village sampling the food. If you ever read the blogs on the WSK web site you know just how seriously these boys take their meals. They don't seem to care for steamed chicken feet.

Many scenes take place in historical times, like the court of Emperor Joseph where they sing Haydn's Insanae et Vanae Curae. The costumes were perfect and must have been expensive to make. You should see the boys wearing powdered wigs. It's really amusing.

Naturally they paid a lot of attention to the sound quality on this film so it not only looks great, it sounds great. The final scene is in the tomb of the first Emperor of China with those life size clay statues of Chinese soldiers and the music there is Dies Irae from Mozart’s Requiem. The boys actually touch the statues and I couldn’t help thinking that if one of them toppled over it would start a domino chain reaction that would be terrible.

I liked this DVD and I’ve watched it a few times now.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

There is so much beauty in the world that sometimes I feel almost overwhelmed by it all. I don't walk around in a constant state of bliss or anything like that, but several times each day I will see or hear something that makes me stop and pay attention. I'm lucky to live out in the country where I do with a forest behind me, a mountain stream in front and meadows on either side. It give me a chance to see how nature can change with the light each day, the glowing mornings, softening fog or sparkling frost, the long shadows in the late afternoon when the setting sun gives everything that warm red tint.

The world can often seem like an ugly place, but beauty is still all around us, just waiting to be noticed. In museums I have seen paintings and other works of art that caused me to stop and stare for several minutes in silence. Most frequently, it’s music will that make me put down what I am doing and close my eyes for a bit.

If I had to pick one favorite song (and thank goodness I don’t) I think it would probably be Suo Gan, the Welsh lullaby. I have three versions and they are all great. The first one I ever heard is by James Rainbird who sang it in the movie Empire of the Sun. His voice is so unique and I still don't understand why he wasn't more well-known.

There used to be several videos on Youtube of the opening sequence when Christian Bale is in the church with the Ambrosian Junior Choir (I think they were just formed for the movie) and he does a great job of lip-syncing to Rainbird’s voice. I think those are all gone now but I did find a clip from the second occurrence of the song later in the film. I’ve linked it here.
The first scene is better so rent the movie. It’s a good film anyway.

Another version is by the Vienna Boy's Choir from their 2003 Christmas album, titled (what else?) The Christmas Album. They sing the English lyrics and when the violins lead to the big crescendo the voices, sounding like violins, also climb with them to the heights. I always get goose bumps at that part because it’s very powerful.

The other version is by Anthony Way and it‘s good in another way. He sings the Welsh lyrics and sings more stanzas than the others do and although Anthony's voice wasn't really on the same par with WSK or Rainbird he still sounds sweetly appealing. This one is softer but the music is really good and I love the big drum that slowly booms near the end.

It’s wonderful that a song can be sung in such very different, beautiful and interesting ways.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Monks and Choirboys of Downside Abbey have a cd titled Gregorian Moods.
It has both Gregorian chants and Choral music. There are standards like Ave Verum Corpus (one each by Byrd, Mozart and Elgar), Cantique de Jean Racine, by Faure, Locus Iste, by Buckner, and more. The choral pieces are separated by Gregorian chants which I am much less familiar with but which, as it turns out, I like a lot. I thought they would just be a bunch of low voices all groaning on in Latin with no music but it’s much nicer than that. Guess I was thinking of the Tibetan monks. These monk’s voices are rich, the songs are pretty and they’re accompanied by some nice organ music.
Listening to these chants is like stepping back in time to a dimly lit cavernous cathedral with rows of hooded men invoking a special magic with their echoing voices.

There are about three dozen boys in the choir and their singing is first rate.
I wanted to find out more about this choir but there isn’t very much information on the internet, not even on the Abbey’s web site. They do have a section called “Ask a Monk” where you can request various information so I asked about the choir, but the monk didn’t reply. I guess he must have suddenly taken a vow of silence.
It would be interesting to know, for example, how it is they wind up with so many men who can sing and who also want to lead a monastic life.

I did come up with a few facts but they are not really about the choir. They run a boarding school for three hundred boys that in 2004 became co-ed. I don’t know if girls are now singing in the choir but this CD is earlier than that.
Founded over a century ago, Downside's Schola Cantorum is the oldest Roman Catholic school choir in the United Kingdom.
“The Schola Cantorum gives concerts of sacred music throughout the year…
Downside Abbey is a Roman Catholic monastery… It is the home of a community of Benedictine monks.”
“The church provides a place of worship for the pupils of our School as well as other visitors, but its primary purpose is for monastic prayer. The monks spend about 2 1/2 hours here every day together in prayer.”

This is a pretty good CD.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Will Your Anchor Hold? - Ely Cathedral Choir, 1999

I saw this cd mentioned somewhere on the internet and thought that it looked interesting so I ordered it. At first I wasn’t sure that I liked it very much but when I realized what they were doing I understood and began to look at it in a different way. Now I can’t get some of the tunes out of my head.

This is an album of old hymns from the mid-1800’s and the choir sings them as they were meant to be sung, in an old fashioned way, like a church congregation where everyone mostly sings in unison. They sing the same words but at different pitches. It’s harmonious and pretty but more simple than what I’ve come to expect from a cathedral choir. Listening to this I can imagine a large church in a coastal town where the hardworking families gather on Sunday’s and all join in singing the traditional hymns, hoping to invoke some protection for their seamen.

The boy’s voices here are sweet and the songs are interesting. These are old hymns like Let the Lower Lights Be Burning, He Leadeth Me and Nearer My God to Thee. If you’ve ever seen the movie A Night To Remember, the early film about the sinking of the Titanic, you may remember the scene were the men were bravely standing on the deck, having sent the women and children off in the few lifeboats, and the band played Nearer My God to Thee as they went under. I still get misty.

Anyway, this cd was made to celebrate the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). This is an organization that is dedicated to rescuing people from drowning so all of the songs have to do with the sea, lighthouses, storms, harbors, lifeboats and so forth.
The front cover shows a sepia photograph of a bearded fisherman in his work clothes.

One thing that is really interesting here is the music. I couldn’t tell what instruments were being played until I read the liner notes. Rebecca Hall plays the Baroque recorders, flutes and tin whistles. Rodney Hall plays guitars, mandolin, autoharp, double bass and keyboards. The recorders, mandolin and autoharp are an especially fun combination that’s pretty unusual for a choir.

I don’t know if this is the style that Ely normally sings in but I will be getting more of their cd’s so I can find out.