The American Boychoir in Concert
March 10, 2003
Hobbs, New Mexico
This was my first time to see and hear the American Boychoir in concert. It required a drive of 452 round-trip miles (727 Km) to this community of about 30,000 in southeastern New Mexico, just five miles from the Texas border. Hobbs has had its ups and downs, but it is now thriving since the economy there is based mostly on oil exploration and production.
Taylor Memorial Baptist Church provided excellent facilities: The sanctuary was very spacious; there were no obstructions between the choir risers and the audience-- the organ being located far left and the piano at far right. Since seating was on a first-come-first-served basis, I arrived early and secured a first row view. When the boys made their processional from the back singing "Verbum Patris Hodie", a thirteenth century plainsong, the choristers passed by me at arms length. My position also allowed me to confidently evaluate some individual voices when the choir later sang from the front and sides of the audience.
Somewhere I had erroneously acquired information which led me to believe the choir might be performing one of those 'show biz' concerts with a lot of flashy costumes and a loud, recorded instrumental 'track'. I was therefore extremely pleased when I saw the program which was divided up into a variety of ancient, old and new religious music for the first half, and then a variety of other works following Intermission.
When the boys assumed their positions on stage I was also instantly pleased by the group's ethnic composition. Three boys were Afro-American; one appeared to be Indian; and three were of Asian ancestry. The United States has often been termed a 'melting pot' for all races and creeds, so I feel it appropriate that a boychoir using the word 'American' in its name should clearly show that membership is based on talent and desire-- and nothing else.
The choir had 30 boys on this tour and two were ill. Although they receive the best of care, there is always a possibility of picking up a 'bug' of some kind, especially when boys stay with local citizens, which was the case in Hobbs. Fifteen families from the Southwest Symphony hosted the boys, taking two boys each.
Another misconception I had was that the American Boychoir toured with mostly older boys. But a show of hands during an informal segment of the concert revealed most of the boys to be 7th and 8th graders (usually ages 12-14) and three members were 6th graders (usually aged 11-12).
The 2003 Spring Tour roster showed that most of the members were, understandably, from states in the northeast. Eleven were from New Jersey, six from Virginia, two from New York, one each from Vermont, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Connecticut; and one from the District of Columbia. But there was one boy each from the states of Georgia, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Indiana, North Carolina and Missouri. The American Boychoir offers an opportunity for local boys in grades 3-6 to audition following each of its tour concerts.
The choristers wore their traditional cathedral robes as they sang the first half which included works by Benjamin Britten, Joseph Rheinberger, Johannes Brahms, and Francis Poulenc. When accompaniment was required, John Charles Schucker seemed to make the church's organ sound much larger and elaborate than it really was. Schuckner's first piano accompaniment was for Leonard Bernstein's "Simple Song". "God Bless and Keep Thee" by Charles Ives and a jubilant performance of "This is the Day" by Gerald T. Smith brought the concert to Intermission. I observed the boys appearing fully confident as they sang together. I would estimate that about half of them put above average facial expressions into their singing. I saw no 'tired faces' and only one boy who looked a bit apprehensive about his solo-- but he had no problems with it at all. Eyes were 'glued' on Director Vincent Metallo, and the boys looked at the audience only between songs.
Walker Robinson, a social studies teacher and tour tutor for the choir, joined two of the boys in selling CDs during Intermission. Shown in the photo at right, their display was set up in the church foyer at the front of the building. In the photo you will also notice the choir's uniform for the second half. The ABC's school uniforms, travel wear and concert wardrobe were designed and contributed by none other than Tommy Hilfiger!
The second part of the concert was full of exceptional performances which really showed the technical abilities of this choir. The boys spread out across the front and sides of the sanctuary, anywhere from 6-8 feet apart, to sing Zoltan Kodaly's "Esti Dal (Evening Song)". From my front row seat I could easily hear not only the boys immediately in front of me, but also those singing from both sides of the audience. The individual voices only a few feet from me were strong, clear and assured. Expressions varied from a smile to that of intense concentration, but eyes were fixed on their director at the back. Singing in such close proximity to individual audience members, meant that each boy became somewhat of a soloist for his own nearby listeners! (I have heard this attempted before by a boychoir which did not have the required experience and training, and it sounded quite anemic.)
Orlando di Lasso's "Echo Song" was performed with a large group of the boys standing in the elevated church choir positions at the front, with a smaller group singing the 'echoes' at the rear. As they were with the Kodaly, the audience was very impressed!
The choir did use music on some of their songs. Doing so was certainly understandable when they sang four of Sergei Rachmaninoff's "Six Choruses, Op. 15" in Russian. Before each Chorus, one of the boys came down front to the microphone and read an English translation.
Also during the informal program break, a boy was introduced as "one of our new 7th graders", and he told everyone about a typical school day at their Princeton, New Jersey school. It begins at 6:45 a.m. and continues at a demanding pace until 9:30 p.m. Included are meals, classes, sectional rehearsals, full rehearsals and a study hall. There is evening "free time" from 8:15 to 9:00. Another chorister, interviewed by Director Metallo, was asked about his 'favorite time' in the choir. The boy said it was the choir's two-week tour last September to Japan.
There were four real 'crowd pleasers' toward and at the concert's conclusion: "A Capital Ship" by Michael Richardson was a fun piece which answered the need for every boychoir to do at least one 'sailor song'. One of the 8th grade boys, now in his fourth year at their school, played the top part of the four-hand accompaniment. "Heaven Somewhere", arranged by Stephen Hatfield, and "Praise His Holy Name", written by Keith Hampton, came next. On the latter, two boys came down front to add a bit of spirited choreography. The boy on the audience's right displayed 100% joy as he danced and clapped. The boy on the left added facial expressions which seemed to say, "Come on folks, you can enjoy this as much as WE are!"
Following a long, standing ovation, the choir then sang a very reverent rendition of "America the Beautiful". I really feel that, if the final two selections had been reversed in order, the audience would have demanded more with a second standing ovation. Although done extremely well, this slow and reasonably quiet patriotic song did not ignite the spirit required to stand. Their encore *was* followed, however, by enthusiastic, sustained applause which continued until the last boy had left the sanctuary.
Bill Razo, Executive Director for the sponsoring Southwest Symphony, estimated that between 400 and 450 attended, based on the number of programs they had left. Many children were present, and none of those under 18 were required to purchase a ticket. In addition, some of the younger ones did not require a program, so it was difficult to make an exact count.
I had only two problems with the concert, neither of which involved the choir's performance. First: Although it is wonderful to give older children an opportunity to hear boychoirs, there were 'toddlers' and babies in the audience. I know this is a touchy problem in a community church setting, but a few parents should have had the good sense to remove offspring who were obviously a distraction to the choir and to others attending. Second: I would have been happier had there been at least some security present and in plain sight. The choir requested none, and I know it represents an added expense, but these are indeed dangerous days. Cellular phones can summon help quickly, but I believe that security would have been an additional sign of respect for some of our country's finest young people, so far away from home.
After writing all of this, I still feel inadequate to express what a treasure The American Boychoir is to the United States. These boys and their leaders show our 'best side' and are valuable models for boychoirs all across our land. Bravo!
Gene Bitner, Webmaster
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