Monday, August 24, 2009

L’or Des Anges

Want to hear something crazy? I have to go in tomorrow for a coronary bypass operation. I told the doctor, ‘no way. That only happens to old people‘. He says not to worry.
Anyway now I have to be away for a few days and I won’t be able to post again until probably Friday or Saturday. So, don’t touch that dial… I’ll be back.
I have been as nervous as an expectant father, pacing the floor and wringing my hands, waiting for that special delivery. It’s finally here and it’s a boy. In fact, it’s lots of boys. I just received the DVD of L’or Des Anges, the pseudo-documentary about boy choirs.

Interestingly the first 4 letters of the title spell L O R D, as in ‘Lord, this is too short”. These things are never long enough and the 52 minutes of the feature go by much too quickly, but there are some behind the scenes footage and some outtakes that are fun.

I’ve only had the chance to watch it once so I’ll report more about it when I return. It may take a couple of posts.
If I had any cigars I would pass them around.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

I used to think there was only one song called Ave Maria and that was the one by Schubert. Then I started getting educated about these things and found out, of course, that there are lots of Ave Marias.
I have a sweet album from Zurich, Switzerland, recorded by the Zurcher Sangerknaben and the title of the album is Ave Maria. They have one version of this song by Charles Gounod which uses a portion of a song by Bach as its base. This is a great version, sung with intense feeling and some really high notes.

It’s interesting that Franz Schubert’s Ellens Dritter Gesang is often misidentified as "Schubert's Ave Maria" because it opens with the greeting "Ave Maria", even though it is not a setting of the traditional Ave Maria prayer. The original text of Schubert's song is from Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake.

Anton Bruckner has an Ave Maria and so do Cesar Franck, Francesco Paolo Tosti, Jakob Ardadelt, Camille Saint Saens and, of course, Schubert. They are all on this CD along with Franck’s Panis Angelicus and Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, and a few others. There is even a Verdi number Laudi Alla Virgine Maria (which I believe is another way of saying Ave Maria) from his opera Otello.

There are some men’s voices helping out in here but mostly it’s the boys who make it such a pretty recording. The cover mentions Daniel Perret and Arian Hohn as sopranos and Roy Egger as alto.

Alphons von Aarburg directs The Zurich Boys Choir which he founded in 1960. More than 130 youngsters from all backgrounds belong to the various groups that make up the choir. Choir members who come from the greater Zurich area rehearse two to three times a week. They also spend two or three weeks at the choir's singing camp in Burgundy (France) during spring and summer holidays. This ’camp’ is at a beautiful castle on a private lake and is far from the rustic image that’s suggested by the term ’camp’. Lucky kids.

Seven and eight year-old boys receive their first training at the Singschule (singing school) and their education culminates in being part of the concert choir. Older boys are given the chance to perform with the men's choruses. The Zurich Boys Choir has toured extensively in Europe and the US and perform also in the Zurich Opera.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

There are a lot of choirs around the world and it’s a lot of fun to explore their music and learn things about them and there are many that I want to hear but I just haven’t gotten to them yet. One choir that I kept putting off is the Pacific Boychoir and I don’t know why. I think for some reason I expected them to be sort of ordinary, not a top notch group, but I was very wrong.

I’ve had a lot of CD’s on order for a week or so and the first to arrive was Cantate, by the Troubadors of the Pacific Boychoir. This is music of Bach, Mozart, Posch and Mendelssohn and the singing is top notch after all. These little boys have some great voices and great skill.

According to the booklet the intent on this CD was to perform these works the way the composers intended, with boy sopranos instead of the female sopranos that are favored today. It’s intended to be more historically accurate, combining both boy’s and men’s voices along with a chamber orchestra of “historically informed practice”. It all works so well.

They start with Bach’s Cantata 150 which is in 7 movements. The writer points out the great “tone ladder” in the 4th movement where the voices step up continually from the bass line to the first violins in a beautiful way. You just have to hear it.
Bach also has Mein Glaubiges Herze (from Cantata 68) which is one of my favorites.

Mozart is represented by Sub Tuum Praesidium and Ergo Interest/Quaere Superna which, according to the notes, are little-known or performed church works from his early years. The first is a duet by a great treble, Julian Abelskamp and 11-year old mezzo-soprano Jacob Wilson.
The reviewer says about the second piece it “demands a singer of technical mastery capable of … the vocal range with Bach-like disregard for a singer’s need to breathe from time to time”. Pretty funny.

They give us Cantate Domino by Isaac Posch, another duet by Ableskamp and Wilson, and Mendelssohn’s Surrexit Pastor Bonus, written when he was only 17.

If you are familiar with these songs I don’t need to say much about how beautiful they are and if, like me, you don’t know them then you should check them out on this disc.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

I’ve been reading Alan Mould’s book The English Chorister, A History, again and it’s amazing how much ancient information he has managed to find about the various cathedrals and their choirs. The life of a choirboy in those days was often a difficult one filled with hard work and few luxuries. Some of the stories he tells are amusing and some are pretty sad. That the boys stayed with the choir meant either that they loved the music or perhaps that their other life choices were even less favorable.

I was looking at Salisbury cathedral, for example, and learned these things.
At Salisbury, Bishop Roger Martival in 1322 reported that the 14 choristers were not well taken care of and were so hungry that they had to go begging each day at the dwellings of the resident Canons to get enough “victuals to keep the wolf from the door”. They also had to work as domestic servants in the homes where they were lodged.
Bishop Martival improved their situation by providing funds for their welfare, housing them together in one house and in the charge of a warden who would educate them a bit and see to their needs.

In 1519 a serious outbreak of the plague afflicted the Close at Salisbury and several choristers fell ill. At least one died.

The period of high inflation during the late 16th century caused a lot of poverty which in turn caused cathedrals to cut back on the care of their choirs. By the early 17th century Salisbury still retained a house for its boys but there was only one resident. The rest had to find lodging with whatever friend they could.

At Salisbury, their master of choristers, Thomas Smythe was reported to be frequently “quarrelsome in choir… and author of dissention and brawling between the vicars of our church and was a swearer and a drunkard and up all night and player of dice openly and publicly…”
He also got in trouble for engaging in a stone fight with the wife of the organist.

His successor, John Farrant, was also no role model for the boys. There is a great account by one of the choristers describing Farrant’s leading him, in the middle of a service, to the dean’s house and threatening the dean with a knife, tearing his gown and then going back to finish singing the service.

Also at Salisbury in the mid-1680’s a chorister, John Freeman, had a run-in with an unpleasant vicar choral, William Powell, who “reacht over the seate and caught him by the haire and pulled his head back against the seate, and struck his face agst the seate with such force as caused his mouth to bleed, and called him ‘bastard’ which caused him presently to cry.”
The boy’s father made a fuss, not over the abuse but over the term ‘bastard’.

I don’t think I would care to live in ‘ye days of olde‘.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

I wish there was a web site for people to swap their CDs with other people. I have a lot of older music that I would gladly exchange for some more boy choir music. I'll trade five Talking Heads for one Tolzer Knabenchor or how about Moby and the soundtrack from Pulp Fiction for something from the Pacific Boychoir?
If anyone decides to start a site like that I hope you'll tell me.

One of the very first choirs that I came to like is the Vienna Boys Choir and I bought quite a few of their CDs. I have more of their albums than any other choir.
An interesting one is their 500th Anniversary CD. It’s a 2006 reissue of an album from 1998, the year of their anniversary.

In 1498 they were known as the “Court Choir Boys” and sang for Emperor Maximilian I and this CD is a collection of music from that time period. Here they share the stage with the Chorus Viennensis, a male choir made up of former Vienna Choir Boys and created in 1952 “to provide the Choir Boys with a matching ensemble of men’s voices“.
There are two male soloists as well, with great voices. Music is by the Vienna Chamber Orchestra, directed by Agnes Grossmann.

I wish the boys were more prominent on this CD but with the loud music and the men’s voices they are often a little overshadowed.

There are two pieces by Schubert, who was himself a Vienna Choir Boy, Magnificat in C Major, D. 486 and Gesang Der Geister, D. 714 and they are both great songs. Magnificat has a really good boy soloist but I don’t know who it is because the liner notes on the reissue don’t tell us anything about the boys.

I really like the first song, Haydn’s Grosses Te Deum. It’s a powerful piece and beautifully written with some exciting violins and soaring violin-like vocals.

Antonio Salieri, whom we all know from the movie Amadeus, has a song here that had never before been recorded, Coronation Te Deum, written for the coronation of Emperor Franz II. He was probably not as bad a person as the movie made him out to be.

Salieri is followed by Mozart’s Mass No. 15 which I like a lot better. The boy soloist here is nice but not as strong as the other one.

All in all it’s a pretty good CD. I can’t imagine a better choir than Wiener Sangerknaben, no matter what they do. Their singing always is distinctive and beautiful.

Monday, August 10, 2009

I have so little musical ability that when I enter a room the average level of musical talent drops dramatically. I do have a cousin who is a musician and I’m trying to get him to learn some of the songs that I like, but somehow Miserere just doesn’t sound the same on a banjo.

Stephen Cleobury, the music director of the Choir of Kings College, Cambridge, said of Kings College…” as well as traditionally minded Christians, we welcome those of all faiths and of none, to whom nonetheless the words and music of the services evidently speak powerfully. Although our services are primarily choral, there are frequent opportunities for congregational hymn-singing, and few sounds are more stirring than the combination of pealing organ with massed voices lifted in song.

I had no idea that they had congregational hymn-singing there. I would love to hear it sometime, but until then I can at least practice with their 2001 CD Best Loved Hymns. This is one that I listen to on Sunday morning with a cup of tea and a Danish but it gets played a lot of other times, too.

There are 18 great songs on this one and they are all done in that powerful King’s College style. It starts with sort of a fanfare, a full orchestra with lots of brass and deep drums on All My Hope On God Is Founded. It’s a very uplifting hymn and the orchestra is fantastic.
There is a stirring version of A Mighty Fortress Is Our Lord and Praise My Lord, the King of Heaven.
For contrast they do When I Survey the Wondrous Cross without music but its so nice I didn’t even notice for a long time.
I love Be Thou My Vision and Dear Lord and Father of Mankind and, as always, I like when there are songs that I don’t know like Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent and several others.
There is one song, Thine Be the Glory, that always amuses me a bit because when they sing the phrase ‘thine be the glory’ is sounds to me almost like they are going to sing ‘frosty the snowman’.
Another fanfare brings up the end with All People That On Earth Do Dwell, lots of horns and that deep, rumbley organ.
This is seventy minutes of really good music, even if it doesn‘t have Miserere on it.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Someone kindly told me about a web site that I have been visiting a lot lately.
UK Cathedral Music Links has an amazing amount of information about various Cathedrals and their choirs, but it also has links to some interesting boy choir history, books, articles and a ton of other stuff. It’s very educational.


Libera is not the only talented bunch of boys from south London. There is also the Trinity Boys Choir from Croydon and I have wanted to hear them for some time, but the only album of theirs that was available from Amazon was Christmas With The Trinity Boys Choir. Despite the holiday title only about half the songs are seasonal, the other 8 are a variety of popular songs. They are:
Let It Be
Over the Rainbow
Eleanor Rigby
Bridge Over Troubled Waters
Windmills Of Your Mind
Amazing Grace

Since it is still the middle of summer I will save the carols until December and talk about the others. The singing is really good here. Bridge Over Troubled Waters is particularly beautiful and Windmills of Your Mind was a nice surprise. I’ve always liked that song.

The only problem I have with this CD is that track 7, Jerusalem, sounds distorted and really fuzzy. Maybe the machine goofed a little when it was printing my copy, but if anyone else has this CD maybe you will tell me if it’s the same on yours. If it’s supposed to sound like that then it’s very, uh, experimental and daring.

Despite the one odd song this CD is a very satisfying one.
This choir must rehearse a lot because they sing so perfectly together. From the information I found on the internet about them I can tell that they are very professional. I lifted some of that information and edited it here, like I usually do.

They have performed all around the world in concerts and cathedral recitals and they have been broadcast on TV and radio in different countries.
The choir has sung on the soundtracks of several feature films and its recordings range from opera to backing for pop albums.
The boys are particularly known for their part in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which they have appeared in more than 150 professional performances, as well as on CD and video.
In the world of opera, the boys appear on prestigious stages all over Europe. On the concert platform, the Choir is regularly invited to perform at the BBC Proms and was honored to perform in Her Majesty the Queen's 80th Birthday Prom Concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 2006. The boys have performed with all the major London orchestras and in Vienna with the Vienna Boys Choir.

One other thing I like about them is the photo of them dressed for a performance in military uniforms and big, black, waxy moustaches. It’s a riot. I think it’s a great picture and I hope I get the chance to see them someday.

Monday, August 3, 2009

This is post number 70. I'm a little surprised that I still have things to say. Thanks, everyone.

Several years ago I started turning British. It was a gradual change. First I started reading Agatha Christy mysteries, then I switched from coffee to tea, bought tea pots that are in the shape of cottages, and picture books about English villages. I even started buying commemorative plates with the Queen’s picture on them. My friends rolled their eyes as I drifted deeper into anglophilia and one friend accused me of channeling Miss Marple.
I’m learning to say lift instead of elevator, flat instead of apartment, loo instead of rest room, but I‘m still not clear about Bob being my uncle.
Also I was relieved to learn that Bubble and Squeak, Spotted Dick and Toad in the Hole are dishes and not ailments.
Yesterday I had an almost irresistible urge to drive on the wrong side of the road.

There is a Brit whose voice I have admired for a while, now. Andrew Johnson began singing when he was 7 with the Bath Abbey Choir and after two years joined St Paul's Cathedral Choir School, becoming Head Chorister in his final year. He was often featured as a soloist on recordings for the BBC, Disney (Prince of Egypt), and others.

Most importantly he was the main soloist with the Boys Air Choir, featuring on four CDs and in two tours to Japan. My favorite CD by them is Boys on Bach where he is the soloist on most of the songs. I especially love tracks 1, 3, 6 and 13 which are songs I was familiar with. They are Ave Maria, BWV 208, BWV 147 and BWV 170 (It’s easier to give the numbers than to write out those long German titles). This is a great CD if you are a Bach fan.
Andrews voice was a very pretty treble with a certain quality that is appealing.

With Sir David Hickox, young Andrew performed concerts at the Barbican and Newbury festivals. He was awarded a music scholarship to Prior Park College where he played the viola in the Wiltshire Youth Orchestra, and in his final year performed Grieg's 'Piano Concerto in A minor'. He was known for sneaking Westlife renditions into church services whilst playing the organ.Today Andrew is a baritone at Magdalen College, where he studies music and plays rugby. He is now part of an a capella group, the Oxford Clerks.