Saratogians have apparently been nice this year, because Santa (a.k.a. the Saratoga Performing Arts Center a.k.a. SPAC) has put a standout gift under their tree this holiday season. The historic Vienna Boys Choir will be making its Saratoga Springs debut with a SPAC-hosted Christmas in Vienna concert at Bethesda Episcopal Church on Wednesday, December 4. (Sorry, folks; the show’s been sold out for weeks.)
Founded in 1498, the Vienna Boys Choir, which officially began performing under that name in 1924, is one of the world’s longest continually running choirs not connected to a church or university. It started as the choir of the Austrian Court, a kind of personal music ensemble serving the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, which was an imperial amalgam of kingdoms that at one point stretched from the Baltic Sea in Germany to Rome. “It was like the emperor’s rather large iPod,” says Tina Breckwoldt, the choir’s official historian. “[He] would travel to visit the various kingdoms in his empire, and the choir would travel with him because it was part of his identity.” Breckwoldt says that there are even letters from the late 15th and early 16th century from Emperor Maximillion I, who originally established the choir, lamenting when he had to travel without his court musicians. “He would say that he was ‘needful of the sound of his musicians,'” says Breckwoldt.
The modern-day choir, which actually comprises four separate touring groups, featuring boys aged 10 to 14, gives around 300 performances a year across the globe and is renowned for the choristers angelic singing of some phenomenally diverse concert programming. The Christmas in Vienna concert will take listeners at SPAC on a musical-historical journey through Western Europe and the Americas. “We strongly believe that music is a language, and it’s best if you can speak it in as many different facets as possible,” says Breckwoldt. “We try to teach the boys as many styles and genres of music as possible. It has to be something that grabs them, that captures the beautiful spirit of any kind of piece, because with music, you’re conveying emotion.” To that point, the choir will showcase its multi-genre chops, with Gregorian chants, songs from the Baroque era and a piece by legendary opera composer Giuseppe Verdi. It’ll also include contemporary compositions, such as “Bought Me A Cat,” arranged by Aaron Copland; “Somewhere” from Leonard Bernstein‘s West Side Story; and even a couple of choice cuts from famous film soundtracks, including “I Wan’na Be Like You” from Disney’s The Jungle Book. And that’s just the first half of the show! The second half of the concert will consist of a colorful array of classic Christmas carols, hymns and tunes from Europe and the Americas. “We love diversity,” says Breckwoldt. “We try to put together a journey through the history of the choir and Western music, because the two are closely linked.”
Because singers have to audition for a coveted spot in the Vienna Boys Choir, it has the reputation of being a quasi-musical talent agency. Over the centuries, some of classical music’s most gifted and influential composers have written specifically for the choir, including Mozart and Austrian organist Anton Brucker. On the other side of the coin, famed Austrian composers Franz Schubert and the Haydn brothers, Michael and Josef, served at different times as chorus members. Schubert, who is most famous for his Romantic song cycles, began composing during his time in the choir; as for Josef Haydn, who was an important mentor to Beethoven, he had a reputation for being a prankster during his time as a choir boy, allegedly cutting off the ponytail of another chorister’s wig. “[Haydn] claims to have gotten kicked out for that,” says Breckwoldt, though she notes that Hadyn was no stranger to hyperbole in his storytelling.
In addition to its rich past and present, the Vienna Boys Choir has a bright future, one that it’s always looking towards with its young members in mind. “We love the tradition, but we love to move with the times,” says Breckwoldt. “We think the most important thing that we’re doing is educating the boys, [and] the touring is very much part of their education, because there’s nothing like traveling if you want to learn about another culture.” In addition to giving the boys an opportunity to tour across six continents and perform in some of the world’s preeminent venues, the choir even has its own primary school for the choristers and a senior high school program where the boys can matriculate once they finish with the choir.
As for the choir’s sold-out Saratoga debut, Breckwoldt says she expects it to be nothing short of a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all in attendance. “When they perform a concert they’re sharing that space and time with the audience,” she says. “So it’s basically a kind of two-hour break from everyday life, and it’s a gift to both the choir and the people who come to hear the boys.”