The Vienna Choir Boys are a tradition, albeit a flexible one--after all, the institution can trace its origin to 1498. To someone who had not seen the group recently, signs of change were apparent Wednesday evening when the venerable choir sang at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. (They will appear Tuesday at Symphony Hall in San Diego.)
The superficies of the performance were as remembered: The boys wore their middy blouses and offered a mixed bag of classical and pops numbers, gloriously sung.
But the spirit seemed much freer and looser than in past concerts. Even the bows were not as tightly regimented as memory recalls. The results seemed more fun for the boys and for the audience.
As usual, a costumed mini-operetta was the major effort. This time it was "G'Schichten aus Alt-Wien," a concoction of familiar Strauss waltzes and tunes in a vague true-love-triumphs-over-all plot frame. No director was credited in the uninformative program.
The boys took to the simplistic thing with happy, hammy zest. The singing was in German, but the principals delivered the spoken dialogue in understandable English, playing to the audience with obvious glee.
This group--the Vienna Choir Boys organization supports more than one touring ensemble--contains two remarkable sopranos, who easily dominated the vocal proceedings. The boy singing the role of Mitzi produced a clear, ringing B-flat in the operetta finale.
Soprano sound characterized the choral works as much as the operetta: The stage setup, focused strictly to the center of the hall, left the altos with their backs to part of the audience. The choir sang with pure tone, sure intonation, crisp, exaggerated accents and dynamics--all with little demonstrative help from conductor Gerald Wirth, who also served as the careful, quiet accompanist.
The sacred works included a wonderful Mendelssohn "Surrexit Pastor Bonus," and pieces by Handel, Victoria, and Kratochwil. Enthusiastic applause elicited two encores, a strong, bluesy "Let My People Go," and more Johann Strauss.