In the limelight - Vienna Boys Choir

Vienna Boys Choir

By Graham Dixon

Standing at least a foot shorter than anyone else in the choir, he looked almost too vulnerable to be standing on stage before an audience of several hundred people. Yet watching him closer, you could see he was in fact holding back when singing along with the other 23 boys. As he stepped forward for the solo in "Omnes de Saba venient," Phillip Schiretz, who must be only 7 years old, filled the church with a most beautiful, soulful soprano voice.

Thus the Vienna Boys Choir introduced a packed house to a heavenly musical talent last Saturday night at First Presbyterian Church .

But their first number was the gritty, passionate "O Fortuna" from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. Here the power of their voices was rather jolting -- an anthem to the power of Luck that has smiled so much on each member of this choir.

They are led by the delightfully animated Italian conductor and pianist Manolo Cagnin. He conducts his choir with his whole body. His face might be seen as a multifaceted baton that changes expression -- it is so elastic it almost changes shape -- according to the mood he is instilling. But behind his infectious vivacity lies the stern discipline so characteristic of Austrian culture -- as Dr. Tom Hyde said to me at dinner afterward, it was quite remarkable to see the self-control and maturity of these boys as they stood with such poise throughout their two-hour concert.

Ne'er a fidgeting leg or a hand out of place for the whole evening.

While it is an ensemble of the first degree, the Vienna Boys Choir also highlights its soloists. In the first half we were stunned by Schiretz, but in the second it was Edis Levent's voice that dominated, with its ethereal, haunted quality. A boy soprano is one of the purest sounds in existence, and with Levent it is at its most pristine.

While the audience experienced what it had probably expected -- perfect boys voices -- the sheer joy and vibrant fun that exuded from the stage was the most exhilarating aspect of this show. Michael Owu, originally from the Republic of Congo, was quietly expressive in Elton John's classic "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?," while in "Widerspruch" the choir's voices took on a quadrophonic quality.

The highlight of the evening came in "Miniwanka" or "Moments of Water." The voices embodied the multiple characters and moods of water. From a dripping tap to a rushing river to waves crashing and on to indecipherable but undeniably watery sounds, the choir illustrated what modern music can be at its best. The lack of formal structure allows for a flowing imagination and sheer inventiveness. "Moments of Water" was hypnotic. Best of all, the smiles being exchanged between the boys showed their delight, even while they sang with a consummate accuracy.

Near the end a series of Strauss pieces evoked the more humorous side of Germanic culture. If there are German Beer Festivals in heaven, this is how their drinking songs will sound. The boys captured the rowdy, vaguely out-of-control atmosphere of those gatherings while also creating visions of waltzing, elegant couples.

A beautiful and yet earthy end to a wonderful evening's entertainment.