What a perfect way to close out the 2017 music season: A choral performance of excellence by the acclaimed Vienna Boys Choir, Wednesday, in St. Bede Catholic Church, courtesy of the Virginia Arts Festival.
With a heritage dating from 1498, the group has grown from its original six boys to one of 100, with worldwide membership. One of four choirs, the latter was evident when director Manolo Cagnin had all 25 introduce themselves. They came from such lands as Germany, Austria, China, Cambodia, New Zealand, Sweden and America.
The high degree of training these young 10- to14-year-old boys receive was evident throughout a vocally demanding program of close to 30 songs, all sung from memory (a benefit of being young) and much sung a cappella. While balance was what it should have been throughout the vocal ranges, it was the soprano span that engaged the ear, the range where the most pure, unadorned, pitch perfect sounds floated, even soared above all, resonating throughout the cavernous facility. Several also showed skill on the violin, guitar and percussion instruments, adding to the flavor of the fare.
The choir’s sense of artistry was heard in exacting phrasing, dynamics, and assorted other musical subtleties expected of such an acclaimed institution. Drawing out these fine attributes was director Manolo Cagnin, a man obviously engaged in his job. His conducting was expressive and flowing, reminding me at times of Gustavo Dudamel’s involved podium spirit. His was a full-bodied expression, especially when conducting from the piano, his whole being dedicated to pulling from his boys the utmost quality.
Although cast as a Christmas program, it was essentially a two-part affair, the second being holiday inspired, the first being a potpourri of styles and substance. It started off on a sacred direction with a processional “Veni Creator Spiritus,” a Gregorian chant that seemed to set the tone for the fare. However, upon the quiet “Amen” of the chant, they immediately broke into a powerful “O Fortuna” from Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” most assuredly not the first thing that comes to mind in relation to Christmas.
Sprinkled throughout the first part were other nods to serious music, among them a “Gloria” and “Exultate Justi.” The majority, however, were more popular and even humorous, among the latter two works featuring the humorous “Capricciata a tre voci” with its singing cat, dog, cuckoo and owl and an amusing “Duetto Buffo per due Gatti,” featuring two sets of two dueling cats. There were also entertaining renderings of such songs as “Libertango,” “Mambo Italiano,” “O Sole Mio,” the “Emperor Waltz” and “Thunder and Lightning.”
As for the anticipated Christmas section, nothing was spared. There was much to hear and enjoy. Among the many selections were a sweetly sung “Gaudete;” “Joy to the World,” with soprano descant; “Angels We Have Heard on High,” which found the large audience singing the refrain; “Pueri Concinite,“ with an exquisite soprano solo, as well as another finely sung solo in Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s “Piu Jesu;” “O Holy Night;” and a medley of “O Christmas Tree,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Jingle Bells.” The program closed with a festive “Feliz Navidad.”
Two touching encores rewarded the extended ovation given the group — Biebl’s moving “Ave Maria” and “Silent Night.” The crowd wanted more but as Cagnin pantomimed, it was bed time for the boys. Assuredly this was a musical gift to remember and cherish.