Thursday, September 19, 2002

Vienna Boys Choir - Year 2

West Chester boys are back in voice and in school with a marvel of the musical world

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        VIENNA, Austria — On a warm, early fall day, 20 little boys sit in a sunny choir room in a 17th-century Baroque palace — the Augartenpalais — near the Danube River in Vienna. They are concentrating on their music, and trying hard not to look out the windows at the brilliant blue sky.

        10 a.m.: It's Sept. 2, the first day of school for the Vienna Boys Choir, the world's oldest and most prestigious choir for boys. Summer has flown by; it's time for 100 boys to start working again on new music, studying algebra and Latin, and getting used to their Viennese home all over again.

Ryan Slone
Ryan Slone
Donald Smith
Donald Smith
        In the soprano ranks, Ryan Slone, 12, and Donald Smith, 14, sing behind their music stands with angelic expressions and the pure, focused voices that have made this boy choir the elite in the world for five centuries. Both boys left their homes in West Chester last year to join the Vienna Boys Choir, only the second and third Americans to join in the choir's 500-year history. This year, another American boy has come from Atlanta.

        “It's new and it's the same,” Donald says with a big sigh. “There are different classes, and a lot of new kids.”

        “And we have to learn Latin as our third language!” adds Ryan.

        They have fleeting bouts of homesickness, but otherwise have adjusted to living in a foreign country, where all their classes are in German. They've become fairly fluent, although they struggle a bit with more advanced or technical terms in math and history classes. Ryan has called home daily to West Chester to get help with his algebra homework, and struggled to complete a 250-word essay in German.

        “I tell him, do the best you can. Make the effort, don't give up. Don't get disheartened and feel it's impossible,” says his mom, Betsy Slone. “He was pretty down after his dad left (Vienna), and trying to face the start of school. How many seventh grade boys do you know who look forward to starting school? Plus, there's the added pressure of German, and having just been left behind by his family again.”

[photo] Donald and Ryan last summer
(Family photos)
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        “This year they need to work harder on their studies,” agrees Donald's mom, Jenny Smith. “They need to fit in better, and take the studies just like everyone else. Donald is very vigilant about his grades; he's not used to anything but A's and B's. He's going to be fine. He always freaks out the first day of school.”

        Although they can get ice cream and pizza in Vienna, their one request from Cincinnati was — Reese Cups.

        Lucio Golino, director of the Haydn Choir — one of the four choirs that comprise the Vienna Boys Choir — is gentle but firm as his young charges fidget a bit in their seats.

        “That was not good; that was a bit bad,” says the teacher, nevertheless smiling as he tries to get the boys to enunciate and sit up straight. They are working on a new song by Schubert, a Viennese composer who once was a choir boy. The conductor works on vocal color, telling them (in German), to sing lighter. They wear no uniforms; the dress code in Austria is similar to what kids wear in the United States: shorts, jeans, sandals and T-shirts.

        Their high voices are charming and extraordinary: they have a distinctive ring when they sing extra high.

Traveling shows

        Donald and Ryan have already gone on a three-month tour to Japan with this group, and have sung for weekly services in the Imperial Chapel of the Hofburg Palace.

        Both boys celebrated birthdays during their three-month tour to Japan last spring.

        “The hotel made us a cake, and we got presents,” says Donald. After a short break at home in the United States, they spent three weeks at a choir camp in southern Austria.

[photo] The gardens of the Augartenpalais
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        Except for its exceptional occupants, this school is much like any boarding school. On the first day, parents are still dropping off their children. Suitcases and large trunks dot a hallway. Signs are posted with “Wilkommen” — welcome back to school.

        Young voices echo rambunctiously through the halls. There are greetings, hand-shaking, hair-tousling and big smiles.

        “There is a lot more freedom for the boys now,” says Dr. Gerald Wirth, 37, the Vienna Boys Choir director, and himself a former member.

        “I think the basic things are similar: the boys sing a lot, go to school and live here in the boarding school. But the way we interact with each other is different, I think for the better.”

        For Dr. Wirth, the logistics of running such a school include weighing offers from presenters who want concerts. He oversees an academic staff, conductors for the four separate choirs, instrumental and voice teachers and the prefects who watch the boys when they're not in class.

        The school includes about 250 children (boys and girls), some of whom attend a day school and after-school programs.

        “We do about 300 performances in a season,” he says. “I have to make sure the training of the young kids is done in a proper way, that each boy gets their individual voice training, deal with parents, deal with agents, and with the press.”

American tour planned

        At the moment, he is planning a North American fall tour for one group, beginning Oct. 17 in New York. The Haydn Choir — Donald and Ryan's choir — will make an American tour this winter, culminating with a performance in Music Hall on March 13.

        Dr. Wirth, who is a composer, has been expanding the repertoire of classical songs and Masses to include operettas, folk songs and even popular music. On Sept. 17, EMI Classics will release The Vienna Boys Choir Goes Pops, their first CD of popular hits.

        The singers regularly work with major conductors such as maestros Riccardo Muti, Pierre Boulez, Sir Neville Marriner, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Mariss Jansons.

        “In order to work with them, we have to have a certain standard of quality. My goal will be to find the ideal path, so it's fun, but they still learn enough and have really interesting experiences,” Dr. Wirth says.

        Dr. Wirth is interrupted by an emergency phone call from the Vienna State Opera. It seems that two of the three “knaben” (boys) who were to sing the next evening in Mozart's The Magic Flute were “croaking.” Their voices had changed over the summer, and no one had a chance to listen to them before they were sent off to rehearse at the opera house. They must quickly find two others who know the part.

        The school is protective of the boys when it comes to the media and unwelcome visitors. Interviews are not allowed on holidays without permission from the school.

        “Kids can really feel badgered by intrusive questions,” says spokesperson Tina Breckwoldt. “I make sure I'm there.”

        She's not happy when she sees tourists sneaking onto the grounds to take pictures, peer in windows or leave gifts for the boys.

        “The kids think it's nice. In 90 percent of the cases, it's harmless,” she says. “But if you're a parent, you want to protect the children.”

        At the moment, she is unhappy that a Filipino TV crew interviewed a young boy from the Philippines over his holiday without permission. The crew has arrived to film him at school; this time, there is a Viennese press agent there to accompany the crew around the grounds. The soccer field is fine, but living quarters are off-limits.

        “Their living area is not for show,” she says. “The kids must feel that they are protected. We like (the grounds) to be open — you want to have an open spirit. But if people come too close, you have to impose your own rules.”

        Noon: In the cafeteria, the tables are meticulously set, and the the lunchroom director stands in her white dress, arms folded, waiting for the boys to arrive. Lunch, the day's main meal, is served family style, with pots of soup, plates of rice and stew on each table. There's also a salad bar. The boys eat with their groups. No one is rowdy.

        During their two-hour lunch break, Donald and Ryan disappear to get ice cream in town with a prefect.

        2 p.m.: Looking rather sheepish, Donald and Ryan reappear just in time for their class, and race to their lockers to get materials. They pause for a minute to reflect on their time there. How long they stay will be determined by how long they keep their high-pitched voices.

        “My talking voice is getting lower and lower, as most people point out when they talk to me,” Ryan says. “But I can still sing high enough to sing first soprano. I'm thinking it will change in the middle of next year.”

        Though it's hard to get back into the routine, they are both anticipating the year.

        “It's neat to meet new people and learn a new language,” Donald says. “Your voice gets better and you learn about the world. It's really cool.”

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