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

"Reasons

for Loving the Harmonica," a newly-commissioned work by

Minneapolis

composer Libby Larsen, and the performance of selections from the

Boychoir’s standard repertoire.

Entitled "Stars and Stripes — The American Boychoir

Forever,"

the concert takes place Sunday, May 31, at 7 p.m., at McCarter

Theater.

As honorary chair of the event, former First Lady Barbara Bush

addresses

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

special

pride for the state of New Jersey. James Litton is its musical

director.

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

versatility.

"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

improvisation

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

Marsalis

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

Institute."

"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

American

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

constructs

sentences and uses repeats is very musical." Employing the

instincts

of a private detective, Larsen eventually tracked down Kane, who

teaches

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

hands;

Because it’s cynical, yet sings;

Because it sings breathing in.

"The choir sings the text, and is also the harmonica,"

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

singer.

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

organization

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

activities

included the soundtrack debut of 19 Boychoir choristers in the Miramax

film "Wide Awake," that stars Rosie O’Donnell, and was

directed

by Night Shyamalan. Although the Boychoir has previously sung on

soundtracks

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

1997,"

commemorating the reunification of Hong Kong and China.

Fiscally, the Boychoir is gaining strength. Since the fall, the

endowment

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

Cincinnati-based

asset-allocation firm to manage its investments. The plan is based

on the school’s investment purposes, and its judgment about

appropriate

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

strengths

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

century."

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

everybody

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

proportions

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

Anniversary Benefit Concert, American Boychoir

School ,

McCarter Theater, 609-924-5858. Benefit reception at 5:30 p.m.

Proceeds

benefit the school’s endowment fund. $45 to $150. Sunday, May 31,

7 p.m.


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