Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Boys of St Thomas

Somehow I wound up with several new Christmas CD’s during the holidays and I suppose I could put them aside until next December rolls around or I could just go ahead and talk about them now.

Oh, why wait?

This one is from a very famous choir, Thomanerchor Leipzig, and it’s titled Weihnachtssingen der Thomaner, which just means Christmas With the Boy Choristers of St Thomas.
The good thing is that with only a couple of exceptions these songs are not particularly Christmasy to me. The titles and lyrics are in German so the only ones I recognize are Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht and In Dulci Jubilo (oh, I suppose that one is in Latin). The other songs have titles like Macht Hoch Die Tur by Max Reger, Ubers Gebirg Maria Geht by Johann Eccard, and Aus Hartem Weh Op.7a by Willy Sendt.

I don’t “sprechen sie Deutsch” but I get the feeling that none of those are translations of Jingle Bell Rock so I can’t really say much about the songs except that they are really pretty.
The first piece and the last, Gelaut Der Thomaskirche Zu Leipzig, consist of the warm tones of the bells of St. Thomas church. Very nice.

The boys and young men sing without accompaniment, and they sound great. Interestingly, there are three numbers that are organ only without voices, and they are also very pretty.

There are 23 songs but at a total time of 49 minutes the CD is over too quickly.

Thomanerchor Leipzig has been around for almost 800 years. They were closely associated with Johann Sebastian Bach but had been in existance for a long time when Bach came along as music director. In the year 1212 Otto IV confirmed the foundation of an Augustiner monastery dedicated to St.Thomas. The monastery included a school to prepare youngsters for a clerical career, to which boys from outside the monastery were also admitted. From the beginning, singing for the liturgy was part of the education.
In the last century alone, the school has survived two World Wars, and the Communist regime, which permitted many of its ancient traditions to continue, unbroken.

The children get up at six in the morning, have several hours of choir practice every day, as well as individual singing and instrumental lessons and, of course, ordinary school lessons. For concerts they always dress in the tradition dark-blue sailor-style uniforms.
I love this bit from BCSD, “Scruffiness is strictly prohibited. The smaller boys are inspected to make sure that their fingernails are not dirty and nothing is bulging out of their pockets.”

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Choral Evensong

 I wonder how many people, like me, enjoy Anglican cathedral music but have never been to a service? I’m not really a church-going type of Christian. When I was a child I had to go to a church where an old man pounded his fist, stomped his feet and screamed that we were all going to burn in Hell forever. I used to hide under my mother’s arm and cry. My later experiences did little to let me see church as a ‘feel good’ experience so I drifted away from organized religion and developed my own ideas and moral code.

Now, Sunday mornings usually find me praying to Saint Mattress, but if there was a cathedral with a boys choir near here I would certainly attend Evensong services. I suppose it‘s okay to go just to hear the singing.
It would be good to know what the services are about, though, so in case I ever get there I decided to learn something about Evensong services.

For a great many of us Evensong has not been a part of our experience so I would like to say a little about it in case others may be curious too. My research source is the internet, not direct experience, so Anglicans may laugh if I goof anything up.

Evening prayer is celebrated in the late afternoon or evening and is commonly known as Evensong, especially when it is sung. The Catholics have something similar called Vespers.
The service usually, but not always, consists of these elements:
An introduction, including a confession and the Lord’s Prayer.
Preces - a series of verses and responses
One or more Psalms
Two readings from the Bible followed by the Magnificat (Latin for Magnify, Stanford’s Magnificate in G is my favorite) and Nunc Dimittis (also called the Song of Simeon from Luke 2:29–32, named after its first words in Latin. It starts out, “Lord, now you let your servant depart in peace according to your word.”)
Then the Apostles Creed, a chant which starts “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth”
Then several prayers and responses, an anthem and some spoken prayers.
One thing you will hear often in Evensong is the Gloria Patri, that verse that says, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost:
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.” I hear that on a lot of the Anglican hymns that I have.

I picked up a CD titled Choral Evensong From Tewkesbury Abbey that I like. When it was announced that the Abbey School would close, they decided that a CD should be recorded of the Evensong service which the choir had sung four times a week for the last thirty two years. I recommend ear phones for this one in order to have a more intimate experience.

The service opens with Howells’ Master Tallis’s Testament, a truly great organ piece, and then Sancte Deus by Tallis.
Psalm 91 by Alcock and Psalm 131 by Peterson are followed by Gabriel Jackson’s Magnificat and his Nunc Dimittis which are both stunning.
The hymn is The Day Thou Gavest by St. Clement, Descant: John Scott.

It goes without saying that the singing is magnificent all the way through this CD. There is a list of choristers in the liner notes and near the bottom of the trebles is Andrew Swait.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Music as Meditation

I once took classes in Transcendental Meditation at a TM center in Atlanta and I was surprised at just how well it works. After only a few tries I was able to get into a very still, peaceful place inside my mind. With practice I found I could stay there for longer periods.
I practiced it daily for a while but then somehow life sort of got in the way and I had less and less time to devote to it. I grew rusty, but I still remember my mantra.

For the past year or so I’ve been working on my own form of TM that involves boy choir music. Here’s how it works.

Find some time to be alone, just you and your stereo or your iPod. Take off your shoes and lie on the sofa or bed, or sink into your favorite chair with your feet up.
Turn on your favorite boy choir. Maybe you’re in the mood for some classical music from the Vienna Boys or some spiritual pop from Libera. Some hymns from the American Boychoir would be nice or, my favorite, that ambient, ethereal music on the album ‘Agnus Dei, Music of Inner Harmony’ from the Choir of New College, Oxford. It works with all sorts of boy choir music (although, I doubt it would be very effective with country or rap).

Now, close your eyes and relax. Free your spirit; clear your mind of all thoughts. Just hear the music, follow the music, but don’t think about the music, just go with it. Go like a boat on the ocean, like a kite on the wind, let it bear you aloft, feel the movement, the sensations.

The song is a stream that wants to carry you along through swift water and still pools. The voices are the sunlight that sparkles and dazzles your eyes, they are the deep, dark shadows that lure you with their mystery, they are the rhythmic ripples that form patterns around you. Float along freely, and don’t be afraid when you feel the music touching your very soul with its soft, cool fingers.

If you find that stray thoughts are trying to intrude just ignore them and switch your focus back to the music. Eventually it will become easier to do. Don’t go to sleep now. Just hear the music and drift along, letting your mind sink deeper like a rock in a pond seeking the bottom.

This is the way to enlightenment, my children. Now… send me all your money.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

I’ve mentioned before that I like the Yeshiva Boys’ Choir so I thought I would check out a couple of other Jewish choirs and see how they stack up. I don’t mean to critique these choirs, I’m not enough of an authority to give a meaningful review, but I did want to just briefly describe their music.

Now what I know about Jewish music is what I learned from the movies and television, two sources that usually have little to do with reality. The Miami Boys Choir has a 1993 CD, The 3rd Annual Miami Experience, that may or may not be representative of their other music. They have tons of recordings but I really didn’t care for this one at all.

The blurb in the liner notes says, “Remember ‘Modeh Ani’ and ‘Shsulim’? Remember ‘Horeini’?” Well, of course I don’t remember those songs but if they sound like the rest of the stuff on this album I don’t think I missed much.
Listening to these songs was like being at a Jewish wedding (the ones I’ve seen on TV) where people dance in a circle to old eastern European music, the kind that has an accordion in the band. It’s a music that’s enjoyed by a great many people but it just wasn’t what I was looking for.
Usually I can focus on the boys’ voices, which I will admit are fine, and overlook everything else, but this was too much for me to handle.

Then I moved on to the mystery choir, The Shaleves Boys’ Choir and their 2002 recording Precious Tears. I call them a mystery choir because I haven’t been able to find out anything about them. The liner notes list the songs and the choir members but there is nothing about the choir itself. Where are they from? Why are there no pictures? How long have they been around? What does Shaleves mean? I searched the internet and came up blank on this one. The only interesting thing I see is that they have a list of people whom they say ‘special thanks to’ and Yossi Newman (presumably from the Yeshiva Boy’s Choir) is mentioned.

The music is nice, more modern and pop than the Miami album and, for me, much more listenable. The songs are in Hebrew except for the title song, Precious Tears, which is in English and seems to refer to Israel, “A nation on her own in this world she stands alone, danger and fear from all sides…”.
The boys sing wonderfully well and probably put on a good show.

Still, for my money, I prefer the Yeshiva kids. Their songs are just prettier, their singing happier

Here’s a bit about the Miami Boys’ Choir: “Formed in 1977 in Miami Beach, Florida, by Yerachmiel Begun, the Miami Boys Choir was part of a larger surge in popularity of Jewish choral music. Made up of Orthodox boys from the Miami area, the choir began recording and performing almost immediately.
After releasing the first few albums, Begun moved MBC to Manhattan although he retained the "Miami" in the name of the group. After its move to New York, the Miami Boys Choir has released a new album nearly every year with boys primarily coming from the New York area.”

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


The Boy Choir and Soloist Directory is closing down on the 19th of this month. That’s a bigger disaster for me than losing the Boys’ Choir of Harlem.

Who am I going to plagiarize, I mean borrow, information from now?


One CD that I wanted to get for quite a while is Andrew Swait’s Song’s of Innocence, but I held back because I read an unflattering review of it. I shouldn’t have worried though, because I knew that Swait has an outstanding voice and talent. He couldn’t do anything bad, nor has he.

I’ll admit, this CD is a little different than the music I’m accustomed to hearing from boys. It’s more sophisticated in its style and song selections, but I like it.

This is another of those albums that deserve to be listened to quietly, without distractions, so the vocals can be savored and studied. Andrew’s voice has changed a bit since his previous year’s Choirboys CD, The Carols Album. The treble quality is still in full force and now it’s richer, more refined. Obviously he’s been studying hard and learning, it’s paying off nicely.

Swait’s voice is not the only one on here. James Bowman, the famous counter-tenor, sings duet with him on several numbers and his voice is a lot like Andrew’s, only more mature. They weave a pretty tapestry together.

I thought that the title, Songs of Innocence, may have been taken from William Blake’s book by the same name and because both have a “Cradle Song”, but then I saw that the words were different so I guess I was wrong.

The liner notes don’t mention Blake at all. They are pretty thorough in mentioning everyone else, though. There is a ton of useful and interesting information in the booklet about Britten, Barber, Ives and other great composers. There are 25 songs and only a few were familiar to me.

One really interesting thing is that they feature some songs by Britten that have not been recorded before, such as The Owl, Witches’ Song and The Rainbow, written when the composer was only a little older than Andrew Swait.

I won’t go into the songs much (the list can be found on the internet) except to say that I really like The Slow Train by Michael Flanders and Donald Swann. The melody is pretty and a couple of verses are spoken instead of sung, like a conductor announcing the stations. It’s fun.

Also I should add that the music on this CD is by pianist Andrew Plant and is quite excellent.

Andrew Swait began his musical training at a very early age and at 6 he went to the Abbey School, Tewkesbury. “At 7 he became one of the youngest to receive a surplice at the final initiation by Michael Tavener (then Vicar of Tewkesbury Abbey) of probationers into the choir.”

He also plays piano and cello. What a kid.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Good Idea

I would like to think that the success of Libera shows that the public’s interest in boy choir music is growing. All of the concerts I have been to have been standing room only and that includes some pretty big spaces so it seems that there must be a lot of fans out there. I hope it all means that we will have boy choirs to mesmerize us for years to come.

If you scroll down on this page you’ll notice that since I installed the stat counter last year we have had over 10,000 visits and that’s not bad for a small, amateur blog. I take it as another encouraging sign of hope for the future.

Did you know that BCSD, the Boy Choir and Soloist Directory, lists 817 boy choirs from around the world? And that’s not all of them. I wish I could hear each and every one of those choirs and have Cds in my collection from them all, but it’s hopeless. I suppose one could begin alphabetically and attempt to gather them up. It would take a long time and a lot of money. There are 44 choirs that begin with “A” and I only have three of them, The Abbey School at Tewkesbury, the American Boychoir and the Atlanta Boy Choir.

Following that path I might never get to Zwettler Sangerknaben and Zwols Jongenskoor.
So far, I’ve taken a shotgun approach to my collecting, usually not aiming at a particular target and just picking up whatever comes near. Unless it’s a choir like Libera or the American Boychoir and then I search for specific albums.

Although Amazon has been my main source for music, they usually make me wade through the same pages every time I want to see what’s available and that can take a lot of time.
I’ve considered buying from each choir’s shop but so many of them don’t have English translations of their web pages and my foreign language skills are poor so that cuts out a lot of choirs. Also a lot of them don’t seem to have shops at all.

What we really need is a central clearing house that specializes in boy choir and boy soloist music. We need a catalogue, especially of the new releases from choirs everywhere. So I’m asking for volunteers, people who know about business and the internet and who are multi-lingual and who enjoy this sort of music. A person like that shouldn’t be too hard to find so step up and let’s get something going. Who's with me?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Pie Jesu

A friend recently pointed out that there are different versions of Pie Jesu by different composers, a fact I should have known, but I just didn‘t really think about it. I knew that I had other Pie Jesu versions that sounded different but for some reason I assumed that the music directors were just playing with the arrangements. Sometimes I don’t pay attention. When I took a closer look at my collection I immediately saw the differences.

Some of the ones I have are Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Pie Jesu by Solvguttne and The Choirboys; John Rutter’s version by Anthony Way and Dara Carroll, Faure’s arrangement by St. John’s College, the Vienna Boys’ Choir, Polski Slowiki and others. St. John’s College has one by Lili Boulanger.

The single best CD for this motet is Requiem by the Boys Air Choir who give us versions by John Rutter, Gabriel Fauré, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Maurice Duruflé so it’s easy to compare them. I’ve said before that this is one of the very best Cd’s I have.

There are more Pie Jesu compositions out there, too but after re-listening to all that I have of them I have to say that while I love them all I really find Rutter’s version the most moving, especially when Connor Burrowes sings it. I think it’s the way the choir responds after each verse and that long high note in the second verse that thrills me.

I’ll quote a little something from Wikipedia here, “Pie Jesu is a motet derived from the final couplet of the Dies Irae and often included in musical settings of the Requiem Mass. …The best known is the Pie Jesu from Fauré's Requiem; Camille Saint-Saëns said of it, ‘just as Mozart’s is the only Ave Verum Corpus, this is the only Pie Jesu‘.”

The funny thing about that is that Saint-Saëns died in 1921 so he would never have heard the great works by Rutter, Webber and Duruflé. If he had, he would have said the same thing I did, that John Rutter’s Pie Jesu, sung by Connor Burrowes, is totally awesome.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

There is a town 52 Km south of Munich Germany called Bad Tölz . Oddly there doesn’t seem to be a Good Tölz anywhere on the map, but there is something really good that comes from Bad Tölz and that is Der Tölzer Knabenchor.

This CD (that Santa brought) Halleluja - Festliche Musik, appears to be a re-release of a 1972 album and it has a marvelous soloist by the name of Hans Buchhierl. The songs on here are popular classical standards from Handel, Bach, Haydn Mozart, etc and they are wonderful renditions.

In the movie Shrek there is a scene where princess Fiona is singing in the forest with a bluebird who tries to match her increasingly high notes until it finally explodes. I often think of that scene when I hear Hallelujah by Handel. You know the part where the boys sing “King of Kings… and Lord of Lords,” then they sing it again even higher and a third time going higher still and holding it. Amazing. This CD opens with that song and the boys really do reach the heights.

You should hear Hans Buchhierl on the second song, Ombra Mai Fu, also by Handel. It is such a moving melody and his voice is like crystal, clear and lovely even when he reaches down for some lower notes. Hans has some delightfully surprising nuance and skill in his singing.

Besides Ave Maria (Bach), Panis Angelicus and Ave Verum Corpus, I was familiar with most of the songs here even though I didn’t recognize their German names.

Tölzer Knabenchor is one of the great choirs of the world with an almost unbelievable number of recordings.
I’ll be listening to this CD a lot.

Once again I lifted a bit of information about the choir from BCSD: “In 1956... Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden founded the Tölzer Knabenchor in Bad Tölz. The wide musical range of the choir encloses vocal music of the Middle Ages up to modernity. Since 1970, there is a section in Munich with its own studio in Munich-Solln. At the moment, nearly 80% of the choir members come from Munich, although Bad Tölz remains an important center. The universal training of the choir members is based on the discipline accepted voluntarily by each boy. Creativity, spontaneity and the joy of singing are as important as a highly developed technique."