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Two Dozen Little Sailor Boys

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Various composers, Exsultate Jubilate, Wiener Sängerknaben
The Wiener Sängerknaben – the Vienna Choir Boys – are in their 507th year of existence and seem to be going strong. Last Sunday they graced Strathmore Hall as part of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s season, and I could not resist the temptation to hear – for the first time live – the choir that we snubbed as kids; referring to them as something along the lines of “the young choir, downriver.” “We,” at the time, were the highly opinionated kids from the oldest choir in the world, the Regensburger Domspatzen, located a few miles up the Danube and run by the current Pope’s brother. We knew very well that they were more famous (unjustifiably, of course!), we scoffed at the fact that they deprived themselves of male voices by ending a boy’s singing career when his voice broke, and we were jealous. And now, nearly two decades after I parted prematurely from the Regensburg Cathedral Choir, I finally get my chance to stick it to those little sailor boys.

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B. Britten, The Golden Vanity, Britten/Wadsworth School Choristers
No. Of course I would not downplay the merits of these choristers for the sake of cheap personal satisfaction. But I brought it up lest someone decry the lack of full disclosure during those paragraphs in which I simply have to point out that the 25 kids under the leadership of Martin Schabasta began with a lackluster performance of Purcell’s O Praise the Lord, Hassler’s Cantate Domino, and Schubert’s setting of the 23rd Psalm, op. 132, D706. With underpowered, slurring sopranos and particularly awful-sounding second altos, they were off to a start that was miles away from the finely honed, absolute perfection that I expected. Individual voices – bad and good – stood out a little too much, and the collective sounded timid. A work by the contemporary Austrian choral composer Kratochwil, composed especially for the Sängerknaben, was significantly better if not yet flawless. Following was a short Mozart work where, for the first time, the choir achieved a measure of excellence. A subsequent Haydn folk song, too, was such good music so well executed that one could have wished for more of those pieces. Beethoven’s Bundeslied exposed the two first voices of the sopranos and altos (the latter in particular) as the kind of voice you would have wished unto every one of their comrades. Works by Gilpin and Elgar were very fine, too, although the second altos had unpleasant voices even when they sang in tune. A choralized version of the Blue Danube Waltz went better than expected and predictably delighted the audience before intermission.

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B. Britten, Ceremony of Carols, Wiener Sängerknaben
Highlights of the second half, which generally went much better than the first, were four movements from Britten’s Ceremony of Carols and Gounod’s Noël, where only the first among the second sopranos didn’t quite meet the high standards their own reputation sets. American Christmas songs like “Let It Snow,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and “Jingle Bell Rock” were popular to those who didn’t think them cringe-inducing. Martin Schabasta accompanied on the piano and conducted, and when he announced and explained works, he did so in the creamiest, perfect announcer voice you might hear from the Austrian State Radio. Old fashioned, perfectly enunciated, and in impeccable English but with enough an Austrian accent, he offered that exotic charm that had the audience eating out of his and his adorable critters’ hands. Singing Silent Night as the last encore, too, helped to send people home with warm smiles on a cold Sunday.