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Choir Boys Roll In For Center Show

September 30, 1987|CHRIS PASLES | Times Staff Writer

Every member of the legendary Vienna Choir Boys can tell you how far a roll of toilet paper unrolls.

"At all the high-rise hotels they stay at, the boys always want to find how long a roll of toilet paper is," said Wally Adams, company manager for the choir's North American tours for the last 15 years.

"Seventeen floors--that's the average, at least for hotel toilet rolls. I don't know about the home variety," he said with a laugh.

Keep that in mind when the classy choir sings tonight at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

(Lots of people call it the "Vienna Boys Choir," but the official name has been "Vienna Choir Boys" (Wiener Sangerknaben) since Joseph Schnitt revived the group in 1924.)

The three-part program will include serious music, including works written for the choir; a Strauss operetta, "Tales from the Vienna Woods," and a collection of lighter works.

The choir is made up of 24 boys, ages 10-14. "That's 48 dirty socks a day," said Adams, who is responsible for scheduling and arranging the boys' day as well as the concert schedule.

"When you're traveling with that many kids, anecdotes are hard to differentiate out," Adams said.

"One kid found a vibrator bed and figured out how to bypass the quarter machine by plugging the vibrator into the lamp socket. He had the whole wing of the hotel vibrating," Adams said.

"You know, they're picked for their intelligence as well as for their musical ability. That's the disadvantage of picking them that smart."

The choir was formed in 1498 by imperial decree of Emperor Maximilian I as part of his musical establishment. (It was not then formally called the "Vienna Choir Boys.")

The choir's responsibilities included singing one High Mass each day, with the boys taking soprano and alto parts, because women were not permitted to sing in church, and also providing musical entertainment for the emperor's banquets.

Composers who worked at court and wrote music for the boys included Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, who was probably the most famous member of the choir. (When Schubert joined at age 11, the choir was already 300 years old.)

The organization went through various vicissitudes, surviving all until the the collapse of the house of Hapsburg in 1918. Schnitt revived the choir six years later.

The boys generally begin their training at age 8 at their own special school, the Augarten Palace in Vienna. At 10, they become eligible to join the pool from which the four choirs are drawn. At age 13 or 14, they are ready to begin touring.

Instructors try to cool down any incipient egotism, according to Adams.

"They make an effort to keep them as a unit, a choir rather than individual stars. Of course, there are solo parts. But we don't want a 13 or 14-year-old 'star' whose voice changes and then has an emotional problem."

In fact, every effort is made to lessen the emotional impact that occurs when the boy's voice begins to change, Adams said.

"All along, everybody explains that it's a natural phenomenon. So the emotional impact is not as bad. Of course, they're sorry to leave the choir, which has been their circle of friends for years. But the older boys are allowed to stay at the school, since the academy is set up to go through high school. Those who want to stay are put into what is called 'the old pensioners' ' home over there."

So popular has the ensemble become that there are actually four choirs so that the home folks can still hear them while other groups tour.

"By the time they get home in December, they will have gone all around the world and picked up an extra day," Adams said.

Although steeped in serious musical training, Adams said the personal tastes of the members of the Vienna Choir Boys varies greatly.

"You don't find more interest in classical music than you would in any group of 24 boys," he said. "They all have a Walkman, every one of them, and their tastes run the whole gamut. Some become great County & Western fans. Same with rock. They know most of the pop groups. If we can hear the music from three aisles away in the bus, we tell them to turn it down because it can ruin their ears."

Their adult traveling companions, however, try not to be over-protective.

"People always wonder when we're loading the bus, why we load two pairs of crutches. Well, things happen. If nobody has twisted an ankle or sprained a wrist on a tour, we'd be doing something wrong. (That would mean) they haven't been allowed to play."

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