Angelic Voices Raised in Song and On the Road

The Vienna Boys Choir. (Lukas Beck photo)

By Annette Hinkle

When it comes to the holidays, perhaps nothing evokes the spirit of the season as effectively as a group of angelic children’s voices raised in song. And when it comes to young singers, perhaps no group can match the reputation — or history — of the Vienna Boys Choir.

The Austrian-based choir is a Viennese tradition dating back to the Middle Ages — 1498 to be exact. That means the Vienna Boys Choir (or some incarnation of it) has been around long enough to have performed the work of Mozart when Mozart was still alive (and, in fact, did).

Half a millennium on, the boy singers perform far beyond the confines of Europe, and at any given moment are winging their way around the globe. The Vienna Boys Choir is actually made up of not one, but four separate choirs of 25 boys, each named for a famous composer with a direct connection to the choir — Hayden , Bruckner, Mozart and Schubert.

It is also a boarding school program and boys spend two of three semesters studying and rehearsing in Vienna — touring during the third semester on a rotating basis. That means there is always one choir touring at any given time during the school year (two in fall when demand is high).

Kerem Sezen is the choirmaster of the Hayden choir (Haydnchor, officially), which has been on a North American tour since mid-October. They’ve already been to Canada, California and the Midwest and are now on the East Coast. The tour finishes up in mid-December at Carnegie Hall, but first, the Vienna Boys Choir will come to the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center for a concert this Sunday at 7:30 p.m.

Late last week on a bus from Pennsylvania to Keane, N.H., Sezen talked by phone about life on the road (“We left this morning and will go through seven states today,” he said), what it takes for boys to become a member of the choir, and how he and a couple prefects keep up with two dozen boys between the ages of 10 and 14.

Europe, Asia, North America — these boys are seeing the world at a very young age. But despite the amazing opportunities afforded them, Sezen notes it’s not always easy to find boys (and parents) willing to make the commitment.

That commitment begins when the boys are 8 and join the choir as boarding school students where they receive intensive training until they are ready to tour at age 10.

“A lot is about the talent, a lot is the training,” says Sezen. “There is rehearsal every day. It takes a year for them to adapt, to learn what the rules are. So we take them in at 8 or 9 and start training them. It’s a time factor. Every two weeks they perform in chapel.”

“It’s discipline on one hand and a dedication to what you do,” he adds. “We have high goals.”

So what kind of boy makes a good candidate for the Vienna Boys Choir?

“Usually it is a boy who loves singing, with parents who support them and are willing to send them to boarding school and let them travel,” says Sezen. “Mainly, it’s a boy who wants a very deep musical foundation.”

“Motivating every year to find 25 boys for four groups – that’s the tough thing,” he adds. “Even though we have a big name, finding every year boys who are able to sacrifice and pursue a hobby on a professional level is hard.”

And while 50 years ago, the choir would have primarily consisted of boys from middle Europe, today choir members hail from around the world — including Asia, Australia and the United States. With the international make-up of the choir comes the complication of languages — not so much in talking to one another, but in singing pieces in a range of foreign tongues.

“Singing the whole program by heart — some in Dutch and French, especially — is tricky,” says Sezen. “There are parts where you don’t say the words how you read it and boys from different continents will pronounce it differently. So there are challenges in languages and keeping up with the melody. They’re singing four or five parts at one time.”

But it’s not just cathedral classics. Sezen notes that audiences at this Sunday’s Westhampton Beach show can expect to hear the boys sing a range of music.

“The first part of the program will be a big variety of songs from our 500 years of repertoire — baroque up to Billy Joel,” says Sezen. “There will be some classical and romantic music from Austria, contemporary and folk and pop songs.”

And of course, holiday favorites

“We’ll begin and end with Christmas songs,” he adds. “There is a big demand for Christmas carols.”

With all the classical music training and travel experience, one might expect most of the boys to pursue music as adults. While some do go on to professional careers (Haydn, himself, was a choir member as a boy), Sezen finds that it’s certainly not a given.

“From my 10 years with the choir, I would say one out of six or seven start a career in music,” he says. “All the others are very much into classical music and amateur choirs.”

But when you’re between the ages of 10 and 14 and your voice hasn’t even changed yet, the challenges of adulthood must seem a long way off. For the boys of Haydnchor, life right now is about performing and seeing the United States — though at times (like during long bus rides) it must get a little tiresome for fidgety adolescents. When asked how the adult chaperones keep the boys focused and occupied, Sezen comments on the variety of personalities the choir embodies.

“The kids are very different,” he says. “We have boys who can really focus for two hours and also boys who focus for 10 seconds.”

“Most are somewhere in between. The younger ones need more time to get their energy out,” he admits. “So we go to a lot of swimming pools, parks, do sightseeing and walk along the river.”

And how have these boys who come from all over the world been enjoying their time in the United States?

“Every boy sees it in a different way,” explains Sezen. “They do love sightseeing and are eager to see new places. They’re also very much into sports — they love basketball and all the games.

“They also love shopping, and are totally into Walmart,” he adds.

The Vienna Boys Choir sings at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $55 to $85. Call 288-1500 to reserve.