HE AMERICAN BOYCHOIR sets the bar for choral singing and education in the United States. While not a liturgical or sacred institution, we must pay heed to their work. As the go-to choir for major symphony orchestras (and Hollywood), they attained a high standard long ago and have sustained it for a very long time. To maintain such levels of quality, they have set the educational bar just as high. The two go hand in hand.
Maintaining high standards in art is a lifetime pursuit, often elusive, rarely achieved. Maintaining the financial health of non-profit artistic institutions is equally challenging. Consider the number of major symphony orchestras in the red. Consider that we have only two Roman Catholic choir schools in the entire United States. If they were easy to build we would have many more! Aggressive fundraising is the new norm for all non-profit institutions, no matter how unpleasant a responsibility. Do so, or perish, and along with it, art and beauty.
The American Boychoir, currently working their way through a significant financial crisis, has not suffered one bit artistically. Having been to the brink, they seem to have blocked out the noise and have made music that much more passionately.
In a recent concert tour, I had the privilege to hear them perform at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul’s in Boston. Having heard them many times before in the last decade, this concert left me with the impression that they have entered a new phase. Sounding better than ever (which is saying a great deal) they now are flaunting a variety of styles and choral techniques, all done to perfection. Conductor Fernando Malvar-Ruiz has indeed redefined the live choral experience.
Their program, “How Can I Keep From Singing” drew from music from many cultures and styles—in and of itself not innovating at all. In fact, many in the audience may find that they like some and dislike others of the choices. (A personal highlight was the Mendelssohn’s Surrexit Pastor Bonus.) But the innovation was the educational intent and subsequent execution. Performed and conducted entirely from memory, this highly disciplined performance appeared effortless when certainly it was not. As many pieces flowed seamlessly form one into another, it was difficult at times to know when one piece began and another ended. This concert was not simply a collection of pieces, related or otherwise. The entire concert was not unlike liturgy in which the music followed an arc, it was given shape which drove a broader message. It was an experience for the listener to engage internally, digest, and carry in their hearts for a long time to come. We strive for this in liturgy. The American Boychoir has modeled this on the stage.
ITH REGARD TO INTENT, conductor Fernando Malvar-Ruiz speaks passionately that the mission of the choir is not music. It is education. Likewise, in liturgical choirs, the purpose of sacred music is not the music itself, but to serve a greater purpose. The greater purpose is paramount. To that end, it is telling that even with recent financial challenges, they have not lost one student. As a result the cohesion and continuity is evident in their art.
Astounding was the beauty, purity, and unity of the choral sound. Equally astounding was the number of individual glorious voices, many of them rather unique, some of them changed, yet integrated seamlessly—something they have always done well. Through the course of the concert, it seemed close to half of the choir of about twenty-four singers had a short solo at some point. Several of these voices were jaw-dropping in their beauty. I had to wipe tears away, such was the privilege to be in the presence of something so truly special.
MALVAR-RUIZ DEFLECTS ALL CREDIT for the boys’ sound to ABC’S Director of Vocal Training, Fred Meads. But what Malvar-Ruiz does with these voices is reaching new heights. In private, he appears very comfortable in his skin in the role of educator and artist. He has a fire in his eyes with love for this institution. Let us hope this beauty continues to shine for many years to come, leading the United States as a model of choral education.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I have not only heard them perform many times before, but have had the privilege to collaborate with them upon occasion. My opinions are not entirely objective. But don’t rely on my opinion. Consider the opinion of conductors who relied upon the American Boychoir: James Levine, Pierre Boulez, and Kurt Masur just to name a few.
Please pray for their success and for all who educate our children through music!