Wiener Sängerknaben (Vienna Boys Choir) – Schubertchor

Andy Icochea Icochea, Conductor

March 22, 2009
Schermerhorn Symphony Center
Nashville, Tennessee (U.S.A.)

Synonymous with country music and dive bars, Nashville, TN seems a contrariety with the worldly classicism of Wiener Sängerknaben. Arriving early in the evening, I strolled about downtown admiring the street performers if not for their talent then for their gumption. Those who reside in the city say you can’t throw a nickel without hitting an aspiring musician. The vivacity of Nashville is contagious and the creativity can be seen in many styles of art and performance. However, there is a culture that permeates the city and that recoils all things to country music and dive bars.

At about half past six I entered Schermerhorn Symphony Center (pronounced Skermerhorn) and waited for the doors of Laura Turner Concert Hall to open. My seat was front row, but slightly stage left. It’s relatively easy to get great seats – if in fact this is a great seat, more to come later – if you order tickets the day they go on sale. Having not been here before, I was surprised at how small the venue was – granted it is still a concert hall.

The choir of 23 boys donned in their “whites” entered from stage right performing Alleluia Video caelos apertos (I See the Open Heavens).  After taking their places, the crowd greeted them warmly. I last saw Schubertchor in the fall of 2006. Andy Icochea Icochea had much longer hair at that time and I don’t recall his English being so difficult to understand. Nonetheless…

The choir performed many pieces, in what was described as four styles – (1) classical, (2) popular, (3) international, and (4) Austrian folksongs. I don’t have much detail to pass along, but here are some general comments.

Classical
O Fortuna [Carol Orff] – A very recognizable piece and I love to hear treble performances of it, but my favorite from Carmina Burana is actually Fortune plango vulnera. Anyway, it was quite dramatic in its own right.
Tota pulchra es Maria [Duruflé]
Lobe den Herren, meine Seele (Praise the Lord, My Soul) from Symphony No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 52 [Mendelssohn]
Ave Verum Corpus, Op. 65, No. 1 [Fauré]
– Simple, but beautiful.
Tenebrae factae sunt (Darkness Fell) [de Victoria]
Angyalok es pasztorok (The Angels and the Shepherds) [Kodály]
– One of the more complex pieces tonight and very well performed. The piece starts out simple, but intensifies to multiple voices and all were in sync.
Die Nacht (The Night), Op. 17, No. 4, D. 983C [Schubert]
Nachthelle (Night Brightness), D. 892 [Schubert]

Et lux in tenebris lucet (And a Light Shines in Darkness) [Andy Icochea Icochea]
Salut printems (Hello Spring) [Debussy] – Quite fitting for the season and beautifully executed.
Psalm 61 (Hear My Cry, O God) [Andy Icochea Icochea] – I am not a fan of his compositions that I have heard, and especially not of this last song. It’s juvenile gospel music.

Popular
Chiquitita [ABBA]
I Have Grown Accustomed to Her Face from My Fair Lady – They sang this in German. I don’t know the soloist’s name, but here is his picture. He was one of the more enjoyable performers. He seemed not entirely certain of himself during this solo, which surprised me since it was the next to last stop of their tour and he has been in the choir for at least a year. Perhaps there was more (or less) to it. Even so, he was energetic and focused throughout the concert, very professional.

Seasons of Love from Rent – I never cared for Rent so I am biased. I don’t want to hear this type of music anyway.

~Intermission~

International
Tritsch Tratsch Polka [Strauss Jr.] – I’m tired of hearing this song, but at least they didn’t perform Edelweiss. The only upside is that the boys seem to always enjoy this one. It is hard to keep pace and you can see them grinning when someone stutters and you can see the same grin, but of relief, when they pull it off flawlessly.
La passeggiata – Finché sereno è il cielo (The Excursion) from Péchés de vieillesse, Volume 1: Album Italiano, No. 12 [Rossini]
Dilmano Dilbero [Anonymous Bulgarian folksong]

The program listed La muerte del Angel (The Death of the Angel) [Astor Piazzolla], but they did not perform it much to my disappointment. I wonder how it would have sounded as I’ve only ever heard instrumental.

Arirang [Traditional Korean love song] – A very touching song. The soloist was very young and although not perfect, I admired his confidence. I wonder if this was not his first tour and first solo (not at this concert alone, but on the tour).
Sus Xâtin [Traditional Uzbek rain song]
Ievan Polkka (Eva’s Polka) [Traditional Finnish polka]

As much as I love classical music, those last two were what I looked most forward to hearing. They can both be found on the choir’s new CD and DVD Silk Road – Songs Along the Road and Time. The former is a powerful rain song and Hibiki Sadamatsu gave the solo the passion it deserved. The polka is fun and fast, much like Tritsch Tratsch Polka. I suspect this will become a new choir favorite. That being said, I felt the choristers were lacking enthusiasm. The song has very climactic points that were muddled through. Knowing they would be performing some pieces from their new CD and DVD, I hoped they would perform the Uzbek folk song Schoch va gado. When I heard this in 2007, Tilman Tuppy on the cello, it was and remains the most beautiful and moving song of their repertoire in my opinion. They did record it on the CD and DVD (and some of you know I like to take credit for that), but they included vocals of Yulduz Usmanova, which overpower the choir and ruin the song.

Austrian Folksongs
Wann Du durchgehst durchs Tal (When You Walk Through the Valley)

Six boys left before the start of this song. If you’ve seen them perform the following then you knew why.

Und wanns amal schen aper wird (And When It Starts To Thaw) – Here the boys returned in traditional lederhosen and danced to what is my (and I suspect others’) favorite Austrian folksong. Having seen this several times, it’s always the younger choristers who dance. Even today, the boys who performed in 2007 were relocated to singing and younger choristers were out front. I wonder if this is like an initiation for them. I could see it as a rite of passage when you no longer have to do it. Those dancing looked like they were having fun and it’s always an audience favorite at this type of concert.
Waldhansl (John of the Forest) – Icochea teaches the audience how to clap along to the song – some on beat and some off beat. The boys do much better than we do. I remember this from years past. In fact, Icochea has said nothing tonight that I did not hear in 2007. It was the same show, only with a few different selections.
Eljen a Magyar (Hail to Hungary), Op. 332 [Strauss Jr.] – I wish America had a song like this. Well performed.
Kaiserwalzer [Emperor’s Waltz], Op. 437 [Strauss Jr.]

The choir exited stage right to a standing ovation, but returned for one encore.

Laudate Dominum [Mozart]

A stunning solo from Hibiki. He is indisputably one of the choir’s most gifted soloists at the present time. His voice is clear and well projected. His solos were the highlights of the evening. It actually took me several songs into the concert to recognize Hibiki. I kept thinking, “Wow! This soloist is very good, but who is he and where is Hibiki?” Finally I put it together (which shouldn’t have been as hard since only two choristers of Schubertchor are from Japan!) that it was Hibiki, only he cut his hair quite short.

Exiting stage right to another standing ovation, the concert ended having lasted about two hours, as is usual. By this time I had a bad headache. As a combination of poor acoustics and sitting too close to the stage, many of the songs actually hurt my ears. These voices are meant to resonate through a cathedral, not be linearly focused the length of a venue like this. Had I not been in such pain, I might recall more detail about each piece (or had I remembered my pen!).

Putting that aside, overall I was rather disappointed with the performance. Very few of the choristers seemed to put forth energy and enthusiasm, but rather most seemed to simply mouth the words to be done with it. I am sure some were tired as the tour was nearly over and, of course, there is always the susceptibility to lose impetus with repetitive performances, but Wiener Sängerknaben is held to the highest standards for a reason. While I disagree with some puritans regarding how far a level Wiener Sängerknaben’s professionalism and standing in the international choral society has fallen, I certainly saw and heard a choir tonight that is flawed.

For more information about Wiener Sängerknaben, visit www.wsk.at or the Boy Choir and Soloist Directory.

Related blog post : Vienna Boys Choir Live at Madrid, 2008

— review by guest author quex

P.S. I don’t know where Kay Olugbenga was. I was sure he was in Schubertchor, but he wasn’t present. Maybe I’m wrong about which choir he is in.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Wow, what a splendid review of WSK! As a treble/classical/boy-choir fan i would love to be able to listen to WSK live some day since they're the ultimate boy choir. Unfortunately they have changed a lot since 1998(for the worse), i do like their early records up to the early 90's.

    I definitely think that someone should review their new movie “Silk road” here! At least… i will definitely buy it when it get's released in the stores.

  2. Hey quez (not at all ridiculous, as quex, ha ha),

    I attended the same concert in Nashville! I flew all the way from Boston to attend. I was hoping to say hello to Hibiki -whom I saw for the first time in a concert in Vienna back in 2007- but that wasn’t allowed ;-(

    Nevertheless, he DID NOT sing the Solo from Sus Xatin! That was definitely another boy -I think he raised his hand when the conductor said Canada- and the solo for this piece is rather short (4 seconds or so). The solo Hibiki sang was Arirang, a Korean song he also sang during their Korean Tour, and was lovely (maybe you got your notes mixed up?).

    About your last sentence, I strongly disagree with you: this choir was wonderful, delicate in dynamics, full of enthusiasm and very precise. Their rendition of “Die Nacht” was as good as it gets, certainly much better than the ones you can find online from the old WSK recordings and closer to the original pitch (they sang it in D flat). My seat was half way towards the back of the hall, second floor. The sound was superb and I could understand every word the conductor said. Funny, huh?

    One question for you. Where did this choir sing in the US in 2007? I saw Schubertchoir in Boston in 2006 (I couldn’t recognize any of the boys from back then but there could still be some in the choir) and as far as I know, they only flew to Finland that year. Would you please tell me where you saw them???

    Thankz quez :-)

    • quez ;)

      Oops! You’re right, I need to correct that to 2006 when I last saw Schubertchor. It was November, 2006 in Chicago (and Brucknerchor in 2005 and Haydenchor in 2004 and Mozartchor in 2003…). I feel old now. Yes, some boys are definitely still in Schubertchor. It’s possible I remembered incorrectly about the soloist or some tracks. I’m only human (more or less). Either way, I think Hibiki is a very talented soloist and the choir’s Silk Road songs are great. I encourage everyone to buy the choir’s new CD and DVD. That being said, the administration and faculty of the choir, as I’m sure they are already aware, have work to do on their part to return Wiener Sängerknaben as the paragon of boys’ choirs.

  3. No quez (ridiculous name, by the way), my opinion did not change. In fact, I wrote this review on March 24 and posted it to another site that day. A choir’s guestbook is not the place to make a lengthy review of the concert. In addition to my question about Kay, all I said there was “I really enjoyed the concert.” That’s true, albeit a small statement from which to deduce my entire “opinion” of the concert. I did enjoy the concert. I always do or I would not attend so many. That doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions on the pieces, performers, conductor, or whether the choir’s international status has changed over the years.

  4. Jake,

    Yes, Vienna Boys Choir was on their spring USA tour. They tour the USA twice a year, also in the fall. Luckily for me there are some local venues at which they always perform so I try to catch them on each tour. This was my first time in Nashville though. The Nashville stop was their next to last stop on the tour. Sorry you missed them, but be sure to check their website and http://www.boysoloist.com for the fall tour dates to be published as soon as they become available.

  5. Were they touring in the US? How many events did they have? I don’t see any more venues in the near future. That’s kind of disappointing, I might have been able to go to one.

    I love your site. There are quite a few films that I’ve added and watched from Netflix that you’ve reviewed. I recently watched “the interrogation of Michael Crowe” and it was really pretty good.

    I saw your post about supporting the site, and while I don’t comment very often, I read it thoroughly and love it.

    Keep it up:)

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