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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Vienna Boys Choir enthralls Weidner audience

Its choirmaster added to the concert’s flair.
Manolo Cagnin
Manolo Cagnin

GREEN BAY, Wis., (WFRV) – The audience couldn’t get enough of the Vienna Boys Choir.

Since the group/concept has been around for 515 years, that’s probably been the case often enough. Saturday night at Green Bay’s Weidner Center for the Performing Arts, cheers and whoops surrounded the final songs and two encores for a 23-voice contingent that’s on a 10-week tour and was making its first stop in Wis-Con-Son.* Choirmaster Manolo Cagnin** made a conscious effort at a pronunciation that came out Wis-Con-Son each time.

*- The choir has been in Wisconsin many times in the past. And the Vienna Boys Choir has performed at the Weidner Center. On a previous occasion, the concert included scenes from operas. This time, it was a straight-out vocal concert (4½ stars out of 5, excellent), with the boys dressed in a sailor-like uniform like in the photograph above.

**- Cagnin is very much a part of the show for the lineup that visited the Weidner. His mop-top head of hair is that of a flashy maestro – suitable for tossing like a mane. His moves, gestures and mannerisms are that of a music man with top-shelf musical/showbiz flourishes. He looks like he is having a great time whether attacking the piano or coaxing just the right sound (mostly) out of the boys with myriad nuances of the wrists, arms, hands, fingers or nod of head. When a song finishes, up Cagnin springs from the Steinway, turning with flair, flashing a radiant smile and acknowledging applause as he conducts a bow from the group and/or an individual boy. Clearly, Cagnin knows how to make it seem like he is enjoying himself. And why not? Touring around the United States with a world-famous Austrian group is not such a bad deal.

Saturday night, the deal included performing in a hall meant for such a concert. No microphones (except for Cagnin’s announcements). Stage set up with the huge acoustical wood wall in place. No adornments. Just a piano, two risers, 23 boys and one man. Okay, sing. Prove why the Vienna Boys Choir name has been around so long. It happened.

Now, to some extent, the Vienna Boys Choir is a cover band. Saturday’s concert included two original songs, “The Choir” and “Tradigister Jodler,” written top to bottom for the Vienna Boys Choir. “The Choir” is a beauty, with layers, nooks and crannies of sound meant to show off the abilities of the boys with sophisticated elements of singing. The other songs were borrowed and adapted to feature a sound, an era, a style, a mood or a tempo. The variety was wonderful.

Announced program

(Consider this a sampler because not all the songs were sung, and not necessarily in this order. Also – hello? – why weren’t enough inserts printed for Saturday night’s audience? Ushers ran out of inserts, and audience members had to share or go without).

“O Fortuna/Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi” from “Carmina Burana,” Carl Orff (1895-1982)

“Omnes de Saba venient,” Joseph von Eybler (1765-1846)

“Insanae et vanae curae,” Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

“Ave Maria,” Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611)

“Der 23 Psalm,” Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Solo to be announced from the stage: It was “Pie Jesu,” Andrew Lloyd Webber (born 1948)

“Easter Hymn,” Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945)

“Tod und Liebe,” Raoul Gehringer (born 1971)

“The Choir,” Gerald Wirth (born 1965)

Land of Sweeping Plains,” Elena Kats-Chernin (born 1957)

“Jubilate Deo,” Heinz Kratochwil (1933-1995)

“Eljen a Magyar,” Johann Strauss, Jr. (1825-1899); arranged by Uwe Theimer

“Oh Happy Day,” Edwin Hawkins (born 1943)

“Gabriellas Sang,” Stefan Nilsson (born 1955); arranged by Lars Wallenas

“Thank You for the Music,” ABBA-Benny Anderson (born 1946) and Bjorn Ulvaeus (born 1945)

“Volare: Nel blu dipinto di blu,” (Domenico Modugno (1928-1994)

“Nella Fantasia,” Ennio Morricone (born 1928)

“Tradigister Jodler,” Gerald Wirth (born 1965)

“Leutl, miassts lustig sein,” folk songs from Austrian Alps; arranged by Gerald Wirth

“Wien, du Stadt meiner Traume,” Rudolf Sieczynski (1879-1952); arranged by Gerald Wirth

“Fruhligngsstimmen,” Johann Strauss, Jr. (1825-1899); arranged by Gerald Wirth

“An der schonen blauen Donau,” Johann Strauss, Jr.; arranged by Gerald Wirth

“Tritsch Tratsch,” Johann Straus, Jr.; arranged by Gerald Wirth

Encore 1: Medley starting with “Oh Maria” and ending with “Shout”

Encore 2: “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” from “Godspell”

The boy often featured in soprano solos received much applause and sometimes cheers. He was excellent for what his singing was, a step away from the mustard and color an experienced adult can throw into the sound. I have a feeling I’m swimming upstream here, but that is what it is.

“Jubilate Deo” was amazing. In the glorious song is a section with the boys’ voices sequenced perfectly to not only imitate but seem for-real the sounds of church bells chiming. That was world class for sure.

For American ears, it was a treat to hear the treatment of Paul Simon’s “The Sound of Silence” taken into a sweet, church-like setting. And Edwin Hawkins’ gospel-adapted old hymn “Oh Happy Day” taken to a classier level.

Gerald Wirth must be The Man for the Vienna Boys Choir. His songs and arrangements set up the choir for luster, and all the songs leading up to the finale were arranged by him. Saturday, those songs were received with ever-growing audience admiration. Excitement was stacked higher and higher. It was fascinating to witness. Once the audience was completely enthralled leading into the conclusion, the Vienna Boys Choir could do no wrong.

THE VENUE: Opened Jan. 15, 1993, Cofrin Family Hall is one of three performance spaces within the Edward W. Weidner Center for the Performing Arts at UWGB. At its maximum capacity, the hall has 2,021 maple-and-burgundy seats spread over three sweeping levels. Capacity is less for symphony concerts. By adjusting hydraulic lifts, the stage can be converted so that orchestra virtually sits in the hall with the audience. The architects listened to the acousticians in a design described as “hybrid shoebox opera house.” The shoebox – with a long, narrow audience chamber, shallow balconies and a high ceiling – has long been thought to produce the ideal reverberation. Audience members feel the sound “bloom” as it arrives in carefully timed sequence from the stage, then from the side walls and last from the ceiling. For acoustical properties, wood is emphasized on the seats, mezzanine and balcony surfaces and walls near the stage. Many surfaces are curved to help shape the sound.  Wood is featured for an aesthetic reason, too – a “from here” aura of woodsy Northeastern Wisconsin.

THE PERSON: Edward W. Weidner (1921-2007) was the beloved founding chancellor of UWGB. He arrived when there were no buildings on the present-day campus on rolling hills near the shore of Green Bay. His interests ranged from academia to birding to sports. He loved building projects. It was in his blood. He guided the building of the Weidner Center, so named from early on in construction. Weidner admitted his eyes welled once when driving to a performance and seeing a green sign along the highway: WEIDNER CENTER.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV at 6:45 p.m. Thursdays and every other Sunday between 6 and 8 a.m. (usually around 7:45 a.m.)

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