The Vienna Boys Choir is arguably the most recognized vocal ensemble in the world. It helps that the celebrated Austrian institution is marking its 525th anniversary, an extraordinary record of longevity that few if any other such groups can match.
One of the four ensembles that tour under the Boys Choir banner will help launch the Chicago holiday season on Nov. 25 with “Christmas in Vienna,” a Symphony Center Presents Special Concert.
The first half will focus on general offerings, including two motets and excerpts from Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods and the Puccini opera Turandot. In addition, the choir will honor its 525th anniversary with a performance of Mozart’s A Little Night Music, traditionally considered to be his 525th work. The second half turns solidly to holiday and festive favorites, ranging from the celebratory Jewish folk song “Hava Nagila” to “The Skaters’ Waltz,” “Carol of the Bells,” “O Holy Night” and “Let It Snow.”
“It’s quite mixed, from classical and Renaissance music to popular music and folk music — a little bit of everything,” said Manuel Huber, who serves as choirmaster and conductor for this ensemble.
The Boys Choir, which UNESCO recognized in 2017 as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Austria, consists of about 100 choristers ages 9-15 who are divided into four touring choirs that present some 300 concerts a year worldwide. (There is also a Vienna Girls Choir, which was founded in 2004 and is set to tour soon.)
Each of the four touring groups has its own choirmaster and its own subtly distinctive identity and sound. “Generally, we do the same thing,” Huber said. “We have the same philosophy, and the style of repertoire is the same. But still, everyone has their own individual choice of what they’re doing with the choir. So every choir actually sounds a little bit different, but it’s only small differences.”
The Chicago-bound ensemble, which is nicknamed the Mozartchor (each is named for a famous composer), began its North American tour on Oct. 11, and it will return to Austria on Dec. 22, switching to a holiday program along the way. It incorporates 22 singers ranging in age from 10 through 14, from Austria, as well as Japan, Germany, Romania, South Korea and Ukraine.
It is one of two Boys Choir ensembles currently touring, with the other traversing China and Taiwan, where the young singers have proven to be much in demand. The remaining two groups are taking their turns at home, presenting, among other duties, Sunday performances in Vienna’s Imperial Chapel, as the Boys Choir has done since its earliest days.
While the Boys Choir has made allowances for modernity, it still operates much as it did decades ago. The boys live at a boarding school, with no exceptions made for those from Vienna. “We need the social bond that they form in the boarding school, and we need also that they know our rules,” Huber said. The boys have weekly individual voice lessons, two hours of rehearsals each day and one-hour sectionals in the afternoons.
The choristers are chosen via an entrance exam. While it is possible to apply and take the exam directly, many of the participants attend the Boys Choir’s elementary school for four years. Others take part in a summer camp and then go to the elementary school for a year.
“We look for the potential,” Huber said of the applicants who are accepted. “They don’t have to be perfect, of course. But we want to see the motivation and the potential to develop in a good way for the choir.”
The Vienna Boys Choir was founded in 1498 by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, who moved his court to the Austrian capital that year. Famous composers such as Joseph Haydn, Michael Haydn and Franz Schubert all sang in the ensemble. The boys sang exclusively for the royal court until 1918, and the choir became a private organization in the 1920s.
The Boys Choir is headed today by Gerald Wirth, a boy chorister and a choirmaster in 1986-89. A former chorus master of the Salzburg Opera House, he has also served as artistic director of the Calgary (Alberta) Boys’ Choir and musical director of the Calgary Civic Symphony.
The group’s most recent album, released internationally in December 2021 on the Deutsche Grammophon label, was inspired by the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Titled “Together,” it features 19 songs that speak to the commonalities of people regardless of their geographic or ethnic origins. As one reviewer recently observed, “The world-famous Vienna Boys’ Choir deliver a musical message of peace: music unites, it does not divide.”