American Boychoir Concerts
May 3, 2007 - Lubbock, Texas
May 4, 2007 - Amarillo, Texas
It was an exceptional opportunity for me to be able to enjoy two consecutive boychoir concerts by The American Boychoir, with a third boychoir bonus at the second concert! This was my first opportunity to hear the Princeton, New Jersey boys since their 2003 Hobbs, New Mexico concert, and of course my first concert since they have been under the direction of Fernando Malvar-Ruiz. A native of Spain, he began his study of music at the age of ten. He received bachelor’s degrees in piano performance and music theory from the Real Conservatorio Superior de Música in Madrid. He also attended the Kodály Institute in Kécskemet, Hungary, where he was awarded the Sharolta Kodály scholarship by unanimous decision of the faculty. In 1996, he graduated from The Ohio State University with a master’s degree in choral conducting and is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in musical arts from the University of Illinois.
Both the Lubbock and Amarillo concerts were free to the public. The Lubbock event was underwritten by the The Friends Of Music group at First United Methodist Church. The Amarillo performance at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church was supported by church funds and a 'love offering'-- envelopes were passed out to those attending.
We were warmly greeted at First United Methodist by Christopher Betts, Director of Music, once a choirboy himself when he lived in the UK.
The choir entered from the rear of the sanctuary, singing the Spiritual Keep Your Lamps, arranged by Andre Thomas. They marched in precision steps, accompanied only by a single, African-styled drumbeat. The 26 boys gathered in their positions on the carpeted steps leading up to the area used by the clergy. From this position the boys matched the acoustics perfectly, and were able to make good eye contact with the audience. (At least one boy was missing because of laryngitis-- He had helped set up the CD sales display in the church foyer.)
The choir then saturated the almost-full seating area with Gloria in excelsis Deo, Et in terra pax hominibus and Cum Sancto Spiritu from Antonio Vivaldi's Gloria, RV 589, followed by John Rutter's The Lord Bless You and Keep You. The boys' voices were a beautiful blend, with crisp, clear enunciation.
The SATB choir's rich, low voices were especially notable in Anton Bruckner's Locus iste, and the final "Amen" of Franz Biebl's Ave Maria reverberated throughout the building! Next was the Paul Sjolund arrangement of Kumbaya which built to a glorious finale with accompanist Kerry Heimann on the Steinway Grand.
Boychoirs can not only impress-- they can also INSPIRE. Such was the effect of the choir's singing of the traditional Give Me Jesus, arranged by Laura Swartzendruber. The last part, done a cappella, had a profound effect on many of those attending the concert, one gentleman responding with an emphatic, "Amen!" (The next evening, in Amarillo, you could hear hushed sighs from the audience following this piece.) The boys then sang John Ferguson's arrangement of William B. Bradbury's Jesus Loves Me... It seemed to create a special bonding among the generations present, especially for those of us who remembered singing the song as children.
The concert included a mini-course in music appreciation as Director Marvar-Ruiz explained the plots in Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, Z626. The three choruses were performed as if favorites of the boys-- There were big smiles preceding To the hills and the vales. During In our deep vaulted cell, four of the boys turned their backs to the audience to sing the echo parts. And the final Destruction's our delight was delivered with appropriate confidence and gusto!
The boys and adults had visited the Alamo while in San Antonio for their April 29th concert. Several inches of rain had come down on the city, and the group had to wade through high water on their way to the River Walk. There, said the director, the boys learned the real meaning of Wade In The Water, a spiritual arranged by Norman Luboff. And it did seem that the piece was performed with extra realism!
A very enjoyable part of the concert was the American folk song Cindy. Arranged by Mack Wilberg for two pianos and the 360-voice Mormon Tabernacle Choir, this was a special treat with just the 26 voices and a single piano. The boys switched to cowboy accents, such as DOUGH-er for "door" and FLOW-er for "floor". This was also the first time the boys rearranged their standing formation.
Three boys came down front to provide African drum accompaniment for the last scheduled selection-- a South African suite: Tshotsholoza, arranged by Henry Lock; Siyahamba, arranged by Anders Nyberg; Sivela kwazulu, arranged by E. Van Eyck; and a traditional Farewell Song. This was "unwinding time" for the boys, as they sang, danced, jumped and encouraged the audience to clap along. They also conquered a huge red and white "snake" in the process! Their standing ovation included the many, varied West Texas versions of "Bravo!" The choir's encore was a wordless, "instruments by voices" version of John Philip Sousa's The Stars and Stripes Forever. To much more applause (another standing ovation in Amarillo), the choir exited down the center aisle. To their credit, the boys gave us this entire concert without any break or intermission.
The Amarillo concert used the same selections, with good, but different, acoustics and lighting. The St. Andrew's sanctuary has A LOT of clear glass-- You can easily view much of the natural sky above and on all sides except the front. (Attending a service during a lightning storm must be spectacular!) This provided a variety of lighting from bright sunshine as the concert began at 7:30 local time, then slowly changing to artificial illumination.
The biggest difference, however, was the addition of the Amarillo Concert Boy Choir, organized in 1989 and now operated as a part of Amarillo Youth Choirs. This choir was invited to perform for the American Choral Directors Association National Convention in Miami, Florida on March 10th of this year. They were named Best in Class All Male Choir in the 2002 Winter Park Ski-Music Festival, and earned the Men’s Chorus Grand Championship Award at the San Antonio, Texas American Classics Bluebonnet Festival in 1998, as well as the Men’s Chorus Grand Championship Award from the 13-week national Orlando Musicfest competition in 1997. The choir also sang, by special invitation, for the Southwest American Choral Directors Association Convention in 2004, the Texas Music Educators Association’s annual convention in San Antonio in 1995, and twice for the American Choral Directors Association Leadership Conference in 1999 and 2001.
The Amarillo boys began the concert and performed three selections. Jonah by Rollo Dillworth, featured a solo by Lucas Alvarado. The choir's good blend of soprano and alto voices was evident in In Paradisum from Gabriel Faure's Requiem. When they presented the very popular Pie Jesu, from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Requiem, all of the other boys bowed their heads as the duet was sung by director Jerry Perales and choir member Nicholas Levy. Both boy soloists, who sang with ease and confidence, later joined several other members of the choir in auditioning for the American Boy Choir, following the concert. (Director Malvar-Ruiz is shown, above right, with two of his assistants-- The boys helped with audition sign-up and record keeping.)
The American Boy Choir had, since the Lubbock concert, returned to its normal complement of 30. (One boy later became ill during the first selection of their main program and was assisted in leaving the sanctuary.) They joined the 46 Amarillo boys on (and around) the choir risers. It was a "tight fit", as you can see in this performance photo:
Director Perales led the 76 young gentlemen in Aaron Copland's Simple Gifts, Long Time Ago and I Bought Me A Cat. While this performance, with only a very short preconcert rehearsal, may not have attained Lincoln Center standards, it seemed very enjoyable to those attending and received enthusiastic applause.
For the Amarillo boys it was an opportunity to sing with some of the finest. For the Princeton, New Jersey choirboys, it was a chance to learn how some really impressive things can be accomplished even when boys are allowed to rehearse for only 90 minutes each week, compared to their 120 minutes per day.
Both choirs departed down the center aisle. The Amarillo choristers then regrouped to be seated in the front-left seating area. (The main seating area of the church was full, and others had been seated in the area at front-right.)
St. Andrew's Episcopal burned in 1996-- a fire caused by a floodlight igniting part of the roof. During the traumatic aftermath, previous American Boychoir Director James Litton telephoned St. Andrew's Director of Music Ministries Margaret Lacy. Litton, who had known Lacy for several years, offered to bring a choir to Amarillo, in an effort to bolster church morale. Litton's offer was declined, however, because the only place available for a concert was the church's school gymnasium. Director Lacy related this story as part of her introduction for the Princeton choir.
Following the Processional, Director Malvar-Ruiz said it was an honor to be in "this incredible space" and complimented the Amarillo boys, saying that they had been "impressive from the moment they walked in." He remarked that, "It is not easy to be a boy and to sing" these days, but he urged to boys to say, "I like to sing... so THERE!" He then led his choir and the audience in applause for the Amarillo choir. Also, just before the Sousa encore, he again thanked them, as his boys faced in their direction and applauded.
A reception was held in the church's fellowship hall, for choirboys and audience members who wished to attend. Many, including Amarillo Director Perales, had a chance to visit with the guest choristers (photo at left). Eleven Amarillo boychoir families hosted boys Friday night and fed them breakfast before bringing them back to St. Andrew's Saturday morning. (The boys had been overnight guests-- in church member homes-- while they were in Lubbock.)
It is my personal belief that the American Boychoir is a national treasure. Founded in 1937, the choir had a weekly radio show, during the 1940s, on the Mutual Broadcasting Network. In the 50s it did the live NBC-TV premiere of Amahl and the Night Visitors, a Carnegie Hall debut, a holiday recording with Bing Crosby, and performed at Toscanini's last concert. In the 60s and 70s the choir sang for Lincoln Center's opening; had TV appearances on the Bell Telephone Hour and Hallmark Hall of Fame; made the first of six tours to Japan; and performed for Pope Paul VI. In the 1980s the choir made the first (and only) American recording of Handel's MESSIAH with men and boys. They have since performed on TV specials with Jessye Norman, The Boston Pops Orchestra and many other music notables.
Numerous CD recordings are currently available, and a new CD is scheduled to be released this fall.
To the director, accompanist, support staff-- and the boys: I appreciated your beautiful singing. I thank you for the gracious encouragement and splendid example the American Boychoir provides for all other boychoirs in this country!
Gene Bitner - ALMOST ANGELS
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