By CHRIS COPLEY
10:39 AM EST, December 7, 2012
How do you balance the expectations of tradition and the demands of contemporary audiences when planning music for a centuries-old, world-famous musical group?
Conductor Kerem Sezen said it's important to include both old and new.
"Times change, and also the audience changes," Sezen said. "So in 1750, when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was living, he was the Michael Jackson or Eminem of his time, (and we sang his music). Now we have 250 more years of musical history, and when you want to get a younger audience, you must change something."
The group Sezen conducts is the Vienna Boys Choir, which was formed by royal decree in 1498 to provide music during church services.
Sezen will lead the choir in a concert Wednesday, Dec. 12, at Shippensburg University. The concert is sold out, but the choir will also perform two other concerts in the region (see If You Go box).
For more than four centuries, the boys provided music for the royal family of Austria-Hungary. When that nation collapsed following World War I, the boys choir was spun off as a private, nonprofit entity. It began touring outside Austria, and for the past century, the choir has developed a reputation as one of the best choirs in the world.
The Vienna Boys Choir has 100 total members, but the full choir is divided into four 25-member ensembles named after Austrian composers Anton Bruckner, Joseph Haydn, Franz Schubert and Mozart. Sezen leads the Haydn ensemble.
Sezen said he uses a three-sided approach to design concert programs.
"One part is for the audience in the particular country where we're touring. One side of the triangle is what the kids enjoy singing," he said. "And the third part is my own interest — what I enjoy and also the interests of my boss — what the kids are ‘supposed' to sing."
Sezen, born in Turkey in 1978, has been choirmaster for the Vienna Boys Choir for a decade. Carrying on the high reputation of the Vienna Boys Choir is a joy and a chore, he said.
"For my part, I am challenged to put the musical standard on a very high level, because that's what the audience expects," he said. "One the other hand, everyone who has a child knows you have to take care of them. You have to teach them in a way that they learn it."
Choir members are age 9 to 14 or so, and all sing soprano and alto. The choir is always auditioning, Sezen said, because the choir needs to add about 25 boys every year to replace the 25 boys whose voices change. Most boys are Austrian, but there are members from all over the world.
"They audition when they're in elementary school, at the age of 9," he said. "While we are touring, we also audition in different countries, where the kids come and audition after a performance."
Auditions are low key, Sezen said. He is not looking for child prodigies, but for solid potential and good social skills.
"The expectations is not too high during auditions. We ask the boy to bring a song. He sings that song. Then we look for the range — how high, how low. We do some rhythm determination. We ask the boy whether he had some training before, voice lessons," Sezen said. "We try to look at how far can he grow. Can he adopt to the situation we have in Vienna, and also to the social background in a boys choir?"
It's a challenge to bring together two dozen boys of differing skills and levels of experience and produce clear, beautiful music, but Sezen said he likes the challenge.
"It is the most difficult instrument you can work with," he said. "It's not like a piano where you push a button and there is a sound. It's 24, 25 young, sometimes inexperienced individuals. You put them together so they enjoy themselves and also do what you want them to do."
All choir members live in Vienna, where they go to a boarding school and perform with the choir. They attend academic classes in the morning, then attend choir lessons. After lunch, they have more classes.
Always, Sezen said, the Vienna Boys Choir conductors try to build a boy's skill while they have a chance.
"There's just a four-year period when a boy is singing in the concert choir," he said. "So usually, we like training in Vienna one or two years in elementary school before joining the choir."
But boys will be boys, and even elite singers get bored with training the same way all the time. So Sezen said he tries to different ways to train his singers.
"The boys learn a lot from other boys. For instance, the older one sings a line, and the younger ones listen to them — in a different way from listening always to the teacher," Sezen said. "The oldest know they have an important role in the group."
After their voices change, boys leave the choir. But they may stay in Vienna and sing with one of two associated choirs for former Vienna Boys Choir members.
The concert at Shippensburg will feature seasonal music and also some classics from the Vienna Boys Choir repertoire.
"We must sing what people think should be the repertoire of the Vienna Boys Choir," he said. "You always want the people to hear of the choir what they like. But you must change it. Modern people who use the Internet are used to new music — music from baroque to pop — not just established stuff."
Sezen said live choral music performances remain popular around the world. Yes, people listen to iPods. Yes, they stream music over the Internet. But a performance by a group like the Vienna Boys Choir is captivating because of the high standards the group maintains.
"I would say everyone wants to perform music, but nobody wants to rehearse. There's a big gap," he said. "Still, people love when a choir is singing, and especially young boys. When it fits for all — when the kids like it and it suits what the audience likes, and it's something I like, it works very well."
If you go ...
WHAT: A concert by the Wiener Sangerknaben (the Vienna Boys Choir)
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 12
WHERE: H. Ric Luhrs Performing Arts Center at Shippensburg University, 1871 Old Main Drive, Shippensburg, Pa.
COST: The concert is sold out.
CONTACT: For more on the choir and its schedule, go to www.wienersaengerknaben.at.
MORE: The Vienna Boys Choir will perform other concerts in the area: at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 13 at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Richmond, Va.; and at 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 14, at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
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