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Yule Cheer, Doubled: Boys Choirs of Germany, Vienna

12.22.08
Vienna Boys Choir
Washington Post

It's not often that you can hear two superlative boys choirs back to back.

On Thursday, Germany's Toelzer Boys Choir sang at the historic United Church in Foggy Bottom, which serves a German-speaking parish. Austria's Vienna Boys Choir appeared on Friday at George Mason University's Center for the Arts. Fresh from lengthy international tours, both brought sold-out audiences to their feet and offered multiple encores. Both groups have an astonishing vocal range stretching from coloratura to mezzo and tenor territory (the Viennese including some bass notes). The groups sang in distinctly different performing spaces, one in an intimate chamber situation, the other in a full-size concert hall. Virtually every boy in the two choirs also had a chance to exhibit a resonant, skillfully rendered solo as well as choral singing.

One of four touring ensembles, the 19 Toelzer youngsters, 10 to 12 years old, filled United's sanctuary with traditional Alpine Christmas folk songs, most of them in the peculiar German dialects of that region. The ensemble was chosen from a the 250-voice choir at its Bavarian home base. Rarely heard here, the music followed the order of the Christmas story from Advent and the Annunciation (a favorite subject of celebrated painters), to Mary and Joseph seeking shelter in a crowded Bethlehem, the angel visiting the shepherds, and the manger scene -- largely lullabies for the newborn Jesus.

Accompanied by an attentive unnamed harpist, the singers missed none of the sprightly dance character in many of their carols. Conducted by the Toelzer's founder, Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden, onetime chorus master at Milan's La Scala Opera, the choir -- attired in lederhosen and loden jackets -- responded to his every gesture with a voluminous and blended sonority. Consonants were ultra-precise and vowels wide open, everything delivered with buoyant energy and long-breathed phrases perfectly in tune.

Twice as large as Thursday's choir, the Vienna boys, 10 to 14 years old, trooped confidently onto the stage sporting cheery sailor outfits. Remarkably, their superb performance capped a nine-week tour with 44 performances. But the Vienna was peppy from start to finish. Founded over half a millennium ago in imperial Vienna, this ensemble (100 strong at home) programmed an impressive mix of art songs, opera choruses, American classic pop (Harold Arlen and Irving Berlin), a sacred hymn (sung in Lebanese) and familiar Christmas fare. Their texts covered no fewer than six languages.

Conductor Kerem Sezen drew from his choir totally disciplined voices tempered by a singular sense of ease and consistency, and a sound conveying ebullience, humor or solemnity as the music called for. Close attention was paid to contrasting tempos and dynamics; intonation was right on the mark except toward the final songs. A soloist in the Lebanese hymn captured the singular grace of its ornate melodic lines in a manner that was breathtaking.