Friday, June 25, 2010

World Choral Festival

  Did I mention it has been a busy week?  Last night (Thursday) a small group of us went to see the World Choral Festival at the Musikverein, a lovely old building in Vienna:

  That last is a bit of detail from the ceiling.  My photo is upside-down, but I think that's a lyre at the center of the design.  So here's some of our little group (I seem not to have photographed a few people somehow):

  The reason we went was to see the Vienna Boy's Choir perform, but there were quite a few other groups on the program too.  Unfortunately, I don't have the names of these groups, or any information on them or the songs they sang.  We didn't realize until it was too late that you had to pay someone to get a program; then all the programs had been sent away to be destroyed, or something, and no programs could be had for love nor money.  I argued with an usher for several minutes and finally gave up.  I can't seem to find the info online either, even though the usher promised me it would be on their website.  Sigh.

  Anyhow, the evening started off with a group that I really enjoyed:

  Quite traditional choral music, by and large, and beautifully sung.  As you can see, we were sitting right above the singers, in a balcony.  This had its advantages; we could watch the conductors doing their craft very clearly, in particular, and the conductor for that first group was absolutely wonderful.  I could see him telling different people to be louder or softer, more vibrant or more subtle, and I could hear the singers responding to him.  It was really quite amazing; it makes me realize just a little bit what it must be like to actually be the conductor!  It must feel like being at a mixing board, with lots of little knobs you can turn for each musician.  Remarkable.

  The next group was from Mongolia, perhaps, or a province of China near Mongolia:

  Their music rather resembled the buzzing of a large swarm of very melodic bees.  It was mostly instrumental; I'm not sure whether they sang at all or not, my memory is already fading, sadly.  It was really quite beautiful, and unlike anything I've ever heard before.  As you can see, some members of their troupe were quite young, which was neat to see.

  The next group was, I think it would be correct to say, a modern a capella group:

  Mostly very pop-styled songs with swingy beats, and often without words, just "boop" and "lalala" and so forth.  As you can probably tell from this description, not really my cup of tea.  Moving on:

  This group was from a different region of China, we think.  They played instruments, but they sang a great deal, and their singing was what stood out for me.  The women's singing reminded me very strongly of Bulgarian folk music: a very nasal singing style, with lots of unusual chords that would be considered dissonant in Western music, even the occasional tritone.  The men's singing was much less nasal, and reminded me quite a bit of an album I have by a group called the Rustavi Choir, of traditional music from Georgia (the country, not the U.S. state).  Good stuff.

  The next was perhaps a semi-traditional choral group, somewhere in between the first and the third groups above:

  They did a nice version, with German words, of a song that I know as a traditional English folk song; I'm pretty sure I have a recording of said song by John Renbourne Group, but I was unable to find it on my iPod just now.  Anyway, it was neat to hear such a wildly different interpretation of a song I knew.

  Then another choral group that didn't make much of an impression on me, I'm afraid (and I only got a photo of their conductor):

  And now, after a bit more fooling about, came the Vienna Boys' Choir:

  This was a really fascinating experience; I've never seen a boys' choir before.  Their voices were just incredibly high and pure and silvery.  On the best songs, they were ethereal.  They suffered from a musical director with somewhat questionable taste, however; "We Are The World" was a bit hard to sit through, in particular.  It has not aged well.  But apart from that, it was really great.

  What it did make me think about a lot, though, was castrati.  The choir could perform wonderfully on quieter songs that didn't demand too much power, but they just couldn't punch it out the way adults can.  As I sat listening to them sing, I was transported back to a very enjoyable book I read many years ago now, Cry to Heaven, by Anne Rice.  She did an amazing job of describing exactly why castrati were so popular as singers (not to mention so politically powerful, but that's another story, and one well worth reading in her book).  While I wouldn't go so far as to say that I wish some of the boys in this choir would be castrated (!), I could really see (i.e. hear) her point after listening to them.  This was most problematic when they sang Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord, from the musical Godspell; that really needs someone who can sing the part of Jesus with full throat, and they didn't have anyone who could do it.  They were rather drowned out by the piano on that song, in fact.  Similarly, they started off with a very nice rendition of O Fortuna, the famous movement that begins and ends Orff's Carmina Burana, and it was beautifully done, but it didn't send shivers down my spine the way that piece so often does; they just didn't have the vocal oomph to be able to make the most dramatic passages ring.

  I don't mean to say bad things about them, though.  They were really wonderful and amazing; I just wanted to put down some of the musings that they inspired.  Anyhow, the evening closed with all the members of all the choirs onstage together for two songs:

  These songs were nice enough, but the voices of the ethnic singers were pretty much absent (most of them were not, in fact, even singing; I don't think they had been prepared for it), so it sounded pretty much like a large German choir.  It was still neat to see them all on stage together though.  A fun end to the evening.

  Whew!  I'm finally all caught up on my blogging; now in about fifteen minutes I leave for Prague for a weekend of tromping around looking at buildings, drinking real Czech beer, and eating what I hope will be very yummy food!


  It has been a busy week!  Wednesday we had a midsummer party at IIASA, thrown by the Scandinavian YSSPers (therefore "midsommar").  It was a great party.  We had more than our fair share of beautiful midsommar maidens:

 We had a seemingly endless supply of ice-cold snaps (i.e. schnapps) served by handsome Scandinavian lads:

  We had a steadfast organizer who apparently lost her voice from shouting at us so much:

  We had, I don't know, at least 50 or 60 attendees I think:

  We had a traditional midsommar tree:

  Which was danced around in the traditional (ridiculously silly) fashion:

  We had lots of yummy food, including pickled herring and meatballs (not shown) and grilled sausages:

  We even had fabulous prizes; behold the happy winner of some moose-shaped pasta:

  It doesn't get much better than that.  And a good time was had by all: