Vienna Boys Choir charms at The Forum

Reviewed by Lee Shepherd

It’s been a very good week, musically speaking, starting with the Nowell Sing We Clear concert Dec. 6 at Binghamton’s Unitarian Universalist Congregation (a Cranberry Coffeehouse event) and the Vienna Boys Choir Dec. 9 at The Forum. If you missed the sadly under-attended Nowell concert by these four talented troubadours, kick yourself. Make a note on your calendar for December 2010 to get tickets, if we’re lucky enough to have them in Binghamton again!

Angels we have heard on high – the Vienna Boys Choir gives a whole new meaning to the phrase. The choir – a band of 23 little boys with angelic voices — and their devilishly handsome conductor, Manolo Cagnin, charmed the nearly full house at The Forum. The concert was a special event in the Binghamton Philharmonic Orchestra season.

Formed in 1498 to sing at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, and backed by a private patron since 1918 at the dissolution of the Hapsburg Empire, the group is actually four choirs that tour the world during the boys’ 10- to 11-week breaks from their rigorous  Viennese choir school.

If you’re used to hearing full-voiced adult choirs, it takes a while to get used to little boys’ pure, tiny voices, unwavering without vibrato. Especially when singing solos, the sweet voices barely reach the first row of the balcony. Cagnin, in his enthusiasm at the piano, sometimes drowned them out. A small amount of amplification would have been a boon – especially for the folks up in the thin-oxygen part of the hall.

These little boys are disciplined to the hilt – not just vocally, but physically – standing Royal Guard still, except for a few choreographed gestures. Their Italian-born and trained conductor is something else again. An Andre Rieu look-alike, Cagnin prances and dances with balletic grace, eliciting the best from the boys while accompanying them on piano or violin. He’s a first-rate piano accompanist, and a pleasing, if not virtuosic violinist. Several of the boys played piano admirably well, too.

I’m told that Vienna Boys Choir concerts were more staid in the past – they just walked on stage and sang. Now, there’s a bit of schtick and plenty of humor to spice up the show.  According to the program, these boys are 10- to 14-years-old, but a couple were so small that they seemed no older than 6. Their miniature cuteness  is a big part of the choir’s popularity. I’m sure the desire to adopt crops up in anyone who has seen or heard them.

Although the choir has a vast repertoire, the boys are best when singing medieval and classical selections. “Laudate Dominum” by Mozart, “Cantique de Jean Racine” by Faure and a modern, intricate work commissioned for them by Heinz Kratchowil were highlights of the concert. In arrangements requiring incredibly difficult close-harmony, a capella singing,  the choir’s pitch dropped only once or twice. Christmas vocal selections from around the world and old show tunes were playfully rendered – it was almost impossible not to sing along.

Three encores and a standing ovation after the main show, with no lull in the applause, their conductor meaningfully closed the piano lid, took a last bow with the boys and danced off stage. May they return soon.

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