The American Boychoir begins the celebration of its 75th anniversary with a novel spin on its traditional holiday concerts. Followers of the choristers know that the internationally known, Princeton-based choir conventionally performs two festive concerts. One is in the Princeton University Chapel, the other in Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton campus. Normally, the concerts include no outsiders. This year is an exception.
In both 2012 performances, global opera star Nathan Gunn joins the American Boychoir (ABC). Baritone Gunn has thrilled audiences in opera houses, symphony orchestra halls, recitals, musicals, and cabarets. Renowned for his good looks, his voice lodges in a fit physique.
The holiday concerts have separate titles. “Voices of Angels” takes place Saturday, December 15, in the Chapel. The “Winter Wonderland” concert takes place the next day, Sunday, December 16, in Richardson. Based in Princeton since 1950, the American Boychoir School enrolls boys in grades four through eight and is the only non-sectarian boys’ choir school in the United States.
In a telephone interview from his Princeton office, Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, ABC music director, says, “Having Gunn as a guest at the concerts enhances their impact.” The baritone is the first guest performer since Malvar-Ruiz came to the choir a dozen years ago. He and Gunn chose the repertoire for the concerts together.
“I decided early in the game that we wanted a guest for the holiday concerts,” Malvar-Ruiz says. He chose Gunn both because of his charisma and because of the beauty of his voice. “I thought his voice would blend with the sound of the choristers. His singing is very smooth. In fact, it’s velvety. It’s not necessarily the tone of treble boys, but it blends well with the choir. Having an adult male singer as a role-model makes me very excited. Normally, an adult male singer is not available as a model.”
Each of the two concerts has a distinctive format adapted to its particular venue. “The concert at the Princeton Chapel is the more solemn one, and has a more formal setting,” Malvar-Ruiz says. “It is a version of lessons and carols, alternating readings and singing. Some of the readings are secular.”
“The acoustics in the chapel are tricky,” he adds. “Because there is so much resonance, fast music tends not to work well. For the chapel I like to choose pieces that are contemplative and have rich harmonies. Diction is fundamental. I ask the boys to overemphasize explosive consonants, the sounds of ‘k,’ ‘t,’ and ‘p.’ That makes the sound not so legato, but the space covers for it. If you do not emphasize the explosive consonants, you might get a beautiful sound, but the meaning of the words would be lost.”
Malvar-Ruiz singles out a special arrangement of “Silent Night” on the chapel program as a provocative experience. “It has amazing harmonies. Rather than having striking sonorities, it depends on subtle harmonic twists. It sounds like new piece, yet it’s familiar because the melody is known so well.” The piece is performed a cappella, without instrumental accompaniment.
The Richardson concert is the more family-oriented of the pair of performances. “It’s upbeat,” Malvar-Ruiz says, “and has wide appeal. It includes a medley of secular Christmas music. It also includes Hanukkah music.”
The first part of the Richardson program is performed by the ABC’s concert choir and includes three solos by Gunn. For the first time in the 2012-’13 season the ABC training choir participates fully in the concert. Until the Richardson concert, the training choir has given only brief performances. “The Richardson concert is their first big deal,” Malvar-Ruiz says. “In the second part of the program, they perform as a separate unit, and also join the concert choir.”
This year’s holiday concerts include more accompanied pieces than usual because of Gunn’s presence. “Solo singers tend to sing accompanied,” Malvar-Ruiz explains. “Most of the repertoire appropriate for a solo singer is accompanied.” Assistant choir director Kerry Heimann accompanies the choristers on both piano and organ.
“We have a connection,” Malvar-Ruiz says, noting that Gunn, Heimann, and he attended the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) at the same time. “Heimann was working on a master’s degree; I was working on a doctorate, and Gunn was working on master’s degree in vocal performance.”
“It was a small school, and everybody knew each other. Still, I heard Gunn sing for the first time when he played Figaro in Mozart’s ‘Marriage of Figaro.’ It was an outstanding performance.”
With all of his course work for the doctorate completed, Malvar-Ruiz has veered away from the dissertation topic he was pursuing at Illinois. His original thesis task was to build a computer program that would help conductors by monitoring their conducting gestures. “The computer would give feedback,” Malvar-Ruiz says.
“Since working with the Boychoir, though, I’m thinking of switching to a topic related to choral singing,” he says with a vague air. He simply has not had the leisure to search out a new dissertation subject. “Being director of the American Boychoir is like having three 24-7 jobs rolled into one.”
A native of Spain whose father runs the regional division of a Spanish fashion company, Malvar-Ruiz earned a degree in piano performance and music theory from the Madrid Conservatory. His first brush with choral conducting came when he was asked by a friend conducting a Madrid church choir to be his substitute while he went on vacation. “I told him, ‘I don’t know anything about conducting or choral singing.’ He said, ‘Neither do they.’ It was a volunteer choir of older people. No one read music.” He took over for his friend.
“I was overwhelmed by the sound coming at me,” Malvar-Ruiz says. “It was an experience of making music with others that transcended any chamber music I had done before. Choral music, I decided, is a collective experience that goes beyond musicality. I felt it. It was after that experience that I started studying choral music.”
On a major scholarship, Malvar-Ruiz immersed himself in choral music training at the Kodaly Institute in Kecskemet, Hungary. “I went to Kodaly because I was interested in working with Peter Erdei, the head of the institute. He is one of the most complete conductors that I know. He’s outstanding technically and musically.
“I learned a whole lot of things associated with musical literacy at the Kodaly Institute. The innate musicality that children have is amazing. If you find the right word, it’s easy to tap into it. Children are capable of the highest musical level because they’re not inhibited. Adults are used to hearing throughout their whole life, ‘You can’t.’ And they believe it.”
After completing his studies in Hungary, Malvar-Ruiz earned a master’s degree in choral conducting from Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, before continuing his education at the University of Illinois.
I ask him how he trains the ABC’s fourth through eighth graders to appear with world-renowned artists. “I try to instill in them a flexibility of mind, and a flexibility of singing. They have to be able to adapt quickly and to be open to instruction from many people. By the time they graduate from the American Boychoir School, they will have sung Mahler’s Third Symphony with five or six conductors. Each of the conductors has different ideas of sound, of interpretation, and of how to cue them in. I try to make the boys capable of following anybody. They take being flexible for granted. Alumni say, ‘I can’t believe that I was regularly appearing in Carnegie Hall with those conductors.’”
Malvar-Ruiz has become an expert on the adolescent voice, and seems to take his landing in the specialty for granted. “I’m an expert on the adolescent voice because I work with adolescents,” he says. “The first thing you learn is that nothing is written in stone and that every boy is a separate world. There are very few dogmas and very few tools. We know that the voice changes and that it changes differently with each boy.”
“Most of the work is psychological. You have to help overcome the fear of not being able to control the voice. You have to encourage boys to keep singing. They have to learn and recognize their new patterns.”
“Sometimes there are only three notes a boy can sing in an entire piece. They have to mouth the rest and learn to do it in a non-intrusive way. You have to build trust. The singers have to trust that you will not lie to them. You do not tell them that something was wonderful, when it wasn’t. They have to trust that the things that you propose work. You have to trust that singers will make the right decisions.
“Adolescents can contribute to a piece in ways that are not sonic. Their voice change helps them understand better what happens in choir. You do not understand something until you lose it.
“What we are doing with these boys,” Malvar-Ruiz says, “what happens to the boys, is a basic part of the American Boychoir School mission. The mission is to build character through participation in choir. The choir is not the goal. The choir is the means to an end.”
Voices of Angels, Princeton University Chapel. Saturday, December 15, 7:30 p.m.
Winter Wonderland, Richardson Auditorium. Sunday, December 16, 4 p.m.
Tickets for both events are $20 to $52. For reservations or more details, call the Princeton University ticketing office at 609-258-9220 or visit the American Boychoir website at www.americanboychoir.org.