Corrections or additions?
This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the June 13, 2001
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
A Gold-Plated Goodbye to James Litton
Each June sprouts a perennial red letter day for the
American Boychoir as trustees, alumni and the families of graduating
boys converge on Princeton for their annual homecoming. This year’s
homecoming has a unique spin. Putting into effect retirement plans
made five years ago, music director James Litton conducts his last
Boychoir concert as the Litton-Lodal Music Director of the American
Boychoir School (ABS); his successor, Vincent Metallo, now Director
of Choral Activities, and Assistant Professor of Music at Wellesley
College, takes over in September. As Litton participates on the podium
at a concert in Richardson Auditorium, 8 p.m. Saturday, June 16,
will be able to hear and see what he has accomplished with the
since his arrival in 1985.
Participant singers at Richardson include the two ABS touring choirs;
the Resident Training Choir, which consists of the fifth graders,
first-year students at ABS; and alumni. Conducting, in addition to
Litton are Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, ABS associate music director and
Lynnel Joy Jenkins, conductor of the Resident Training Choir. Scott
Dettra accompanies at the piano. The program includes music ranging
from the 16th century to pieces commissioned for the Boychoir.
The American Boychoir was founded in 1937 as the Columbus Boychoir
by Herbert Huffman, a resident of Columbus, Ohio. Huffman was a
of Westminster Choir College of Rider University (WCC), which was
then located in Dayton, Ohio. For the first two years of its existence
the budget of the Columbus Boychoir remained below $6,000 annually.
For fiscal 2002, which begins in July, it is $3.5 million. The
choir became famous during the 1940s, and when WCC moved to Princeton
it brought the boys’ school along, and turned over to it in 1950
the mansion built by Gerard Lambert of Lambert Pharmaceuticals, and
owned by WCC.
Chronically cramped into the 32 rooms of Albemarle,
the ABS finally began to build new dormitories in the early 1990s,
and to move staff out of offices with the small hexagonal tiles that
revealed their former use as bathrooms. The student body has become
increasingly diverse with 24 of this year’s 78 students coming from
minority groups. Students come from two dozen American states. The
cost for a single boarding student this year averaged above $16,000;
about half the student body receives financial aid. The endowment
fund with a goal of $10 million, created in the early 1990s, has now
reached over $6 million.
Pre-Litton followers of the Boychoir will directly confront Litton’s
accomplishments both visually and audibly at the Richardson concert.
The contingent of 38 choristers that Litton inherited when he arrived
16 years ago has now grown to a stage-stretching 80, the maximum that
can be accommodated at the school. The ears of listeners may detect
that Litton has altered the sound of the Boychoir, expanding its
treble voice range to include the deeper sounds of boys whose voices
have changed. Before Litton looked into the matter, a boy whose voice
had slipped to a lower register had no place in the Boychoir. Litton’s
innovation permitted such boys to keep singing. The benefit was more
than an increase in the sonic horizons of the choir: The ensemble
freed itself of its unfortunate habit of weeding out some of its most
experienced singers, and boys whose voices had fallen in pitch no
longer had to think of themselves as discards.
Asked about his proudest accomplishment, Litton waxes encyclopedic.
He lists the increased size of the school. "It’s an accomplishment
to get American boys to come from all over country to spend their
life in this very specialized work," he says. He is pleased with
the diversity of the choir from a racial point of view, and with the
increased diversity of the choir’s repertoire. "The music library
is five times the size it was when I came. The Choir can sing many
different styles of music in an appropriate way. Using boys after
their voice has changed creates much more color and excitement in
the choir. Our concert engagements and recordings have increased."
With the addition of "Holy Innocents," released in the fall
of 2000, the discography of the ABS now approaches two dozen releases.
Litton made his first recording with the Boychoir in spring 1987.
He has issued at least one ABS recording each year since then.
As the most important single thing during his tenure, Litton cites
the association of the ABS since 1989 with the New York Philharmonic.
"[Kurt] Masur has loved the choir," he says. "Therefore,
other orchestras are aware of us." The Boychoir has appeared with
the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra,
as well as with visiting European orchestras. Next year it performs
with the Chicago Symphony for the first time.
Showing a hard-nosed streak, Litton also owns up to contributing to
the fiscal well-being of ABS by ferreting out commercial TV recording
opportunities about a decade ago. "It was purely commercial,"
he says. "It was easy to do. We’d just go into New York for an
hour. I thought at first that I was a prostitute to do it, but it
gave us a base of income that we couldn’t have acquired
Litton is not cloyingly modest about his collection of ABS
He takes responsibility for them, while recognizing the role of
He mentions ABS president John Ellis and the headmasters of the school
However, even more interesting is his frank discussion of what is
still left undone as he retires from ABS.
Indeed, it was his awareness that he would be unable to solve the
acutely-felt ABS problems that propelled his decision to retire.
had dreams and plans for what would happen here," he says "and
we hadn’t gotten to where I would have liked to see us be. I faced
that five years ago. There’s only so much that can be achieved."
At age 66, Litton buttresses his decision to retire with the assertion
that he is past retirement age and that the time has come for him
to indulge himself. He would like to spend more time with his four
children and with his pair of grandchildren under the age of four,
who live in New Jersey. "For a few months I’ll have no
he says. "Then my wife and I go to Norway in September for the
coastal steamer trip. It will be three and a half weeks of scenery
After that, he will be available for performing and giving workshops
on a freelance basis. "I want to write about choral training.
And I miss playing organ." He intends to pursue the organ as a
hobbyist, not as a professional.
Meanwhile, those at ABS will tussle with the time and space
that restrict the general well-being of choristers, their ability
to develop musically, and their effectiveness as performers. "The
facilities at the school are not quite good enough," Litton says.
"It’s all related to space problems."
At the top of his list of specifics, he cites room for rehearsal.
"We have one adequate rehearsal space," he says, "but
we have three choirs. Over the next year a master plan for the campus
will be made. We need a gym and additional classrooms. It will happen
in the next 10 or 20 years. I was hoping it would happen before I
"We need instrumental practice facilities," Litton adds.
English choristers learn piano and at least one other instrument.
It helps vocally. It helps students understand what music is about.
At the Boychoir school there are a few students who take piano lessons
or pursue an instrument they’ve already started. Their parents arrange
to keep things going. The chief problem here is that there’s no space.
There are time slots when one could schedule instrumental lessons.
I’ve pushed the idea of an electronic piano lab where we could teach
Next, Litton cites the need for individual vocal coaching, which he
labels primarily a time problem. "The boys get some individual
vocal coaching," he says, "but we need a system where there’s
at least 15 minutes per student per week. With 80 kids that’s a lot
of time. It will probably happen next year or the year after. I’ve
been pushing for that, and I know that my successor has made it one
of his primary concerns."
Vincent Metallo, Litton’s successor, returns to ABS
after a year at Wellesley College. Having earned a master’s degree
at Rider College’s Westminster Choir College in 1994, Metallo became
Assistant Music Director at ABS from 1995-99 and its Associate Music
Director for the year 1999-2000. His immediate superior at ABS was
Litton. One of four finalists, Metallo was chosen from a field of
50. "Vincent Metallo is an incredibly talented musician and
He’s relatively young. He has much to learn from experiencing things.
He has not done much touring, or working with various kinds of choirs,
but he did a fair amount of conducting in college. He got some fine
experience this year working with a collegiate group. He’s a wonderful
singer himself. He’s a natural for developing," says Litton.
"I came to the Boychoir School when I was 50," says Litton,
a native of Charleston, West Virginia, graduate of Westminster Choir
College, and New Jersey resident for 30 years. Under Litton’s belt
by 1985, when he arrived at ABS, was almost a decade at Westminster
Choir College and 14 years at Princeton’s Trinity Episcopal Church.
"I had had experience with many different groups," he
"volunteer and professional; girls, boys, and adults. Metallo’s
specializing at very early age. He will grow with the job. We all
gain experience on the job."
Litton sums up what he learned on the job. "When I came I had
a concept of choral tone, and I learned how we go about getting it.
I learned about the dynamics of working with middle school boys. It’s
a difficult age group. In rehearsals you have to use common sense
and psychology. The kids are very able, and they want to be here.
But they’re not always able to put everything into a rehearsal.
normal boys. When you come before them at 7:30 in the morning, they
want to sleep or be out shooting baskets. It takes more than musical
— Elaine Strauss
Auditorium, Princeton University, 609-258-5000. "Brothers, Sing
On! A gold-plated goodbye to James Litton." $20 & $25; students
$10. Saturday, June 16, 8 p.m.
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