Corrections or additions?
This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper
on May 27, 1998. All rights reserved.
Stars, Stripes, Libby Larsen, & Barbara Bush
The 60th anniversary gala benefit concert of the American
Boychoir reflects its wide musical spectrum by including an appearance
of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and his ensemble, the unveiling of
for Loving the Harmonica," a newly-commissioned work by
composer Libby Larsen, and the performance of selections from the
Boychoir’s standard repertoire.
Entitled "Stars and Stripes — The American Boychoir
the concert takes place Sunday, May 31, at 7 p.m., at McCarter
As honorary chair of the event, former First Lady Barbara Bush
patrons via video feed from Texas. Composer Larsen plans to attend,
and three former New Jersey governors (Brendan Byrne, Thomas Kean,
and Jim Florio) join Governor Christine Whitman as honorary co-chairs
of the event. The involvement of the politicos underscores the fact
that the Boychoir is a national treasure, and an organization of
pride for the state of New Jersey. James Litton is its musical
Although performer Marsalis and composer Larsen, in some ways, diverge
in their approaches to music, the Boychoir is comfortable with both;
including the two on one program emphasizes the Boychoir’s
"Playing jazz is different from playing classical," Marsalis,
who plays both, told U.S. 1 (December 6, 1995). "Jazz is like
having a conversation. Classical is like being an actor: you have
to bring the parts to life." Larsen leans less toward
than Marsalis does. "My true first passion is sound," she
says. "All sound is potentially musical sound," she told U.S.
1 (January 29, 1997). "I use whatever sound I need for a piece
of music and call that sound an instrument." Her marimba concerto
calls for "amplified wok top."
The Choir first met Marsalis in December, 1991, when they collaborated
in a program called "A Carnegie Hall Christmas." In 1993
gave the graduation address at the Boychoir’s commencement. "It
was the single wisest and funniest address I ever heard," says
John Ellis, president of the Boychoir School. "The only one that
even came close," he adds, "was by Lewis Thomas, the author
of `Lives of a Cell,’ and chancellor of Sloan Kettering Cancer
"Since 1993 we’ve kept in touch with Wynton," Ellis says.
"When we wanted to do something remarkable, we knew immediately
to call on him." Marsalis and his ensemble will contribute their
services to the gala benefit, and will perform some of their standbys,
as well as new pieces.
Composer Larsen, Ellis explains, is a longtime fan of the Boychoir,
which has often traveled to her home state of Minnesota. Larsen, whose
compositions were performed in New Jersey in February 1997 by the
New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and Princeton Pro Musica, is also a
friend of Ethan Henderson, who took on the post of General Manager
of the Boychoir in the fall of 1997. Ellis cites another reason for
asking Larsen to join the celebration. "We wanted to affirm that
one of the roles of the Boychoir is commissioning works for boys’
choirs," he says.
Larsen talks about the genesis of her piece for the
gala. "The Boychoir wanted to focus on the American vernacular.
Jazz was part of the conversation. I talked to Litton and Henderson.
They were hoping for a piece that celebrated American music.
"Of course, anything I wrote would be American, since I’m an
composer. But, more specifically, they wanted non-classical music.
We talked about banjo, and about trumpet as jazz instrument. I began
thinking: what can I write? I looked into Langston Hughes, and various
other texts; I thought about slang words. Then I remembered the poem
`Reasons for Loving the Harmonica’ by Julie Kane. The way Kane
sentences and uses repeats is very musical." Employing the
of a private detective, Larsen eventually tracked down Kane, who
at Louisiana State University, and got her permission to use the poem.
The piece is scored for four parts (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass)
and piano and is four minutes long. Kane’s poem is short:
`Reasons for Loving the Harmonica’
Because it isn’t harmonious;
Because it gleams like the chrome on a `57 Chevy’s front grille;
Because it fits in a hobo’s bandanna;
Because it tolerates spit; a little spit means the music is fervent;
Because it’s easily rigged to a contraption that frees the human
Because it’s cynical, yet sings;
Because it sings breathing in.
says Larsen. "I played the harmonica as a kid. If you breathe
in, you get one chord, and if you breathe out, you get another chord.
The choir uses breathing in and out patterns. They sing `Wee —
Oo,’ mimicking the harmonica. The motif goes all the way through the
piece. But it was a problem how to notate it."
Larsen and Kane became friends through phone conversations and letters
as the project developed, Larsen says. "We talked about how every
artist wants to be something else. She would like to be a blues
I would like to be a Bunraku puppeteer."
Larsen explains that the Japanese Bunraku puppets range in size from
six inches to two stories high and are worked with rods by a puppeteer
dressed in black. They were also an inspiration for Julie Taymor’s
"Lion King" on Broadway. "The Bunraku puppeteer uses a
mix of body movement and invisibility," Larsen says. "You
have to teach your body to move in abstract ways to make the puppet
move realistically." She pauses for a moment of self recognition,
and adds, "That’s what you do when you’re a musician."
Since the opening of the 1997-’98 school year, when U.S. 1 talked
to the Boychoir School leadership (U.S. 1, October 1, 1997), the
has continued to build its array of achievements.
In October they appeared at Carnegie Hall for the U.S. premiere of
Luciano Berio’s "Ofanim." In addition, their October
included the soundtrack debut of 19 Boychoir choristers in the Miramax
film "Wide Awake," that stars Rosie O’Donnell, and was
by Night Shyamalan. Although the Boychoir has previously sung on
for commercials, "Wide Awake" was its first experience working
with the director of a feature film.
In January the voice of Boychoir graduate Devon Provenzano, a West
Windsor resident, was heard in the Oracle television commercial, first
broadcast during the 1998 Super Bowl extravaganza.
In March the Boychoir joined cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Orchestra of
St. Luke’s at Avery Fisher Hall in New York to perform the East Coast
premiere of Chinese-American composer Tan Dun’s "Symphony
commemorating the reunification of Hong Kong and China.
Fiscally, the Boychoir is gaining strength. Since the fall, the
fund of the school, whose goal is $10 million by the year 2002, has
risen above $3 million because of additional commitments of $300,000.
In addition, within the last month the National Endowment for the
Arts has awarded the School a challenge grant of $120,000, the largest
award given to a New Jersey arts group for 1998-’99.
The Boychoir School engages Renaissance Investments, a
asset-allocation firm to manage its investments. The plan is based
on the school’s investment purposes, and its judgment about
levels of risk. At the moment, with a bull market, investments are
distributed among equities (60 percent), bonds (30 percent) and cash
(10 percent). The proportions change depending on the relative
of the stock and bond markets.
The Boychoir is permitted to use five percent of its income annually
for its operations. The Board looks back over the previous year, and
considers what it has earned from capital appreciation, dividends,
and income. Then it decides how much to allocate for the coming year.
"We never count our eggs until they’re hatched," Ellis says.
Ellis is not nervous about the optimistic level of the
present stock market. "I wish I had a crystal ball," he says,
"and I wish it said that till 2002 the market would be just as
robust as it’s been the last six years. The most important thing is
that $10 million will make a significant contribution to our ability
to remain financially strong and viable as we enter the next
At present the Boychoir School is in the midst of a strategic planning
process, Ellis says. The last long-range plan was made in 1994. By
the school year 1998-’99, a new plan will take its place. On a recent
Saturday, representatives of the Board, the Parents Associations,
the academic faculty, the residential house parents, and the senior
staff got together for what Ellis calls "a visioning retreat"
to consider where the school should be in 10 years.
"We wanted to look ahead longer than the normal three to four
years," Ellis says. "There was a strong consensus from
for increasing our focus on an arts-based curriculum that more fully
integrates academic offerings with musical activities." Ellis
describes that sort of integration as, for example, using music theory
and notation as a springboard to such mathematical studies as
or fractions. Ellis offers other examples: adapting language arts
and social studies to reflect major works performed by the Boychoir,
such as Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, or to use places where the
boys tour as a focus for literature or history. I inquire about the
absence of students at the "visioning retreat" and learn that
those who met suggested including the boys as the plan moves forward.
"As we look at the 1998-’99 season, we’re very excited," Ellis
says. The Boychoir is scheduled to visit Latvia and Russia to perform
a newly-composed work in January 1999. The Choir is also scheduled
to appear for the first time in the state of Alaska during November
and December. Rather than resting on its laurels after 60 years, the
American Boychoir is actively expanding.
— Elaine Strauss
McCarter Theater, 609-924-5858. Benefit reception at 5:30 p.m.
benefit the school’s endowment fund. $45 to $150. Sunday, May 31,
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.