Starting Early 

Children's choirs a surprise delight

Children's choirs a surprise delight

Disappointment happens—often when you least expect it. Not too many years ago, I went eagerly to hear a live performance by one of the world’s celebrated violinists. I had often listened—and still do listen—to wonderful recorded performances by this dude. But on this particular evening, he scraped his way through a performance that could have been used to blackmail him. Just thinking about it, I feel myself tensing.

But delight happens too, and just as unexpectedly—at rehearsals, for instance, by some of our city’s young choristers, who are preparing for their last big performances of the season. You can do your own audit of the actual performances this coming weekend. On Friday evening, the Blair children’s choruses—the Concert Choir, Blair Choristers, Young Singers of Blair, and the Boychoir of Nashville—will perform at First Presbyterian Church on Franklin Road, a very good space to hear music. On Sunday afternoon, the Nashville Children’s Choir, comprised of three divisions, will perform in Massey Concert Hall at Belmont.

I especially enjoyed watching the Boychoir rehearse. Director David Bone founded the group in 1995, giving Music City its own version of a special male sound that dates back through the beginnings of Western Christendom to the Levite choirs of King David. For centuries, female voices were not heard in official music, sacred or secular. Indeed, until well after Martin Luther inadvertently triggered the Protestant avalanche, the only well-trained female voices in Europe belonged to courtesans. Serious music was made by males only—and the special treble sound of boys was especially prized.

Accurate, focused youthful voices, male and female, have a distinctive quality that only a precious few grownup voices are able to keep. The noteworthy feature is the absence of vibrato, allowing voices to blend into a less diluted unison. It’s hard enough to match pitches exactly, but it’s impossible to synchronize the quaverings of vibratos. Thus even the best adult sound is less “pure” than the sound from children. This purer unison makes possible harmonic clarity and accuracy that adult voices cannot achieve. (Adult voices have special values too, of course—power, range, and richness.)

Each class of children’s voices is unique. The boy’s voice has a special color or timbre—the sound of a recorder, say, as opposed to a flute, or the sound of the oboe as opposed to its cousin, the so-called English horn. And when this youthful male sound is joined with the sounds of men, including the special class of falsetto singers called counter-tenors, the result is a unique stimulus for the ear, one highly reputed in our tradition for more than 2000 years. Famous boychoirs come out of Europe—Vienna, for instance, and Cambridge. But some pretty good ones are found in the USA—including the American Boychoir in Princeton, and the Alabama Boychoir, founded a decade ago and nurtured since by Karen Nicolosi in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Excellence in such choirs does not happen overnight. And a crucial ingredient for excellence is continuity. A boy chorister’s career is not very long, lasting from about the third grade to puberty—which can crack a voice overnight. Successful groups have enough singers to make two or three choirs, so that beginners can be developed without hampering more experienced singers, and cracked throats can be smoothly replaced. That means, ideally, some 50 or 60 voices.

The Nashville Boychoir now has 23 voices, including Evan Broder, who sang and acted with great poise in Nashville Opera’s recent Turn of the Screw. In performance, the boys are uniformed in blazers and slacks. But not in rehearsal. They come into practice from school or from the playground, shirttails out, sneakers untied, sweaty faces flushed, rallying themselves with guy talk.

David Bone and the boys are relaxed with one another in a marvelous ambiance of discipline and good-humored patience. When an individual boy goofs, he raises his hand to show he knows he did so. Now and again, David Bone will ask the group what went wrong with a musical moment, choosing from the raised hands a witness to testify. These days, that doesn’t happen a lot: It’s near the end of a season, and the singing is remarkably good.

Mostly these boys sing in unison—in some ways the hardest kind of singing. They do this not only because of the rookies among them, but also because you cannot sing accurate harmony until you can sing accurate unison. They do sing some harmonized passages, little climactic moments, and sing them very well.

Moreover, what they are singing is tough stuff, musically and textually; they sing in German, Hebrew, Latin, and Spanish, as well as in English. Melodies and rhythms are often quite “modern” (even when in fact several hundred years old), including everything from Bach to a delightfully clever recent Canadian diptych, “Hockey” and “Baseball.” All the guys, including David Bone, seem to be having a good time. I certainly did watching them in rehearsal.

The Nashville Children’s Choir, which rehearses at Belmont, is a variation on this theme. Like the choirs at Blair, this group is divided—into a Preparatory Choir, a Concert Choir, and a Touring Choir. I heard the Touring Choir rehearse—though the two younger choirs did join them briefly to sing three songs. Unlike Blair’s Boychoir, the Touring Choir is mixed—some dozen boys among about 30 girls. Though nobody was overtly recalcitrant, a couple of older boys were passively inattentive and only sang some of the time. I surmised (as a former boy) that they sang what they liked and did not sing what they did not like. More than once they drew the eye of director Marilyn Shadinger.

The group was singing quite sophisticated music—Pergolesi and Handel as well as Charles Ives; a humorous song in French about a dancing monk; and a very tricky Hispanic folk song that included some gypsy hand-clapping. Though some of the harmonies they sang were jazzily dissonant, the intervals stayed precise. Some of the older boys notwithstanding, the group’s togetherness was close—and the performance level impressively high.

When the kids got restless—and they did—Marilyn Shadinger gave them a short break. She signaled the end thereof by singing, at about the pitch orchestras tune to, the syllable “oooo.” Joining her, the kids matched the sound. It was a nice moment. I was struck by the focused accuracy of pitch as cacophony transformed into music again. Shadinger spent almost no time tuning. She spent her time fine-tuning phrasal shapes and expressive presentation. Clearly she and the kids have done their preparation well.

This choir has already sung a lot this year—at the Governor’s Mansion, for 11 performances of the Nutcracker, and earlier this month at War Memorial Auditorium. And this Touring Choir does indeed tour. Last year they traveled to Memphis to sing at the national meeting of the American Orff Association. Next month, they are off to Hartford, Conn., and there has even been talk of a European tour.

The Nashville scene includes a lot of grownup choirs, some of them quite good. These children’s choirs—better than many grownup ones—are important reasons why. Music City, more famous of late for its tornado, makes another kind of impression when these kids take their shows on the road. They’ve earned their ovation.

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