The American Boychoir School makes real-world musical experience part of the curriculum. This renowned ensemble of youthful voices travels frequently to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra, and other top orchestras. Work on the Boychoir’s 25th album recording has just commenced, so these fourth-through-eighth-graders from throughout the country and world also know what it’s like to be recording artists.
On Sunday, May 19, the Boychoir will turn Richardson Auditorium into a radio broadcast studio for a taping of “From the Top,” the NPR show that features the artistry of young musicians. The show will be broadcast nationally and at 11 a.m. on Saturday, June 3, over Mercer County Community College’s WWFM-89.1 FM. Tickets for the 4 p.m. taping are on sale.
It is part of the Boychoir’s 75th anniversary, which includes a concert, dinner, and other events that weekend. Sending part of the festivities over the airwaves is an idea that got started in 2010 with a fortuitous introduction at the Tanglewood Music Festival, in Lenox, Massachusetts, where the Boston Symphony Orchestra takes up a summertime residence. The American Boychoir was there to perform in a movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. Tom Vignieri, From the Top’s music director, was in the audience.
“Afterward I told them how impressed I was and how I wanted them on the show,” Vignieri said. “We featured them later in a show from Lehigh University. Then they were thinking of a way to celebrate their 75th anniversary, so they called us and asked if we would be willing to do a show of this sort, and we said absolutely.”
Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, the Boychoir’s music director for the past nine years, sees the radio broadcast as one more opportunity for his young singers to learn something while celebrating a milestone for the school.
“It was such a great experience for us,” Malvar-Ruiz said of the association with From the Top, “that we immediately thought of this show as a great way to showcase our history and music-making after 75 years. We are quite a collaborative ensemble. We record quite regularly with other soloists, and it’s a wonderful opportunity for the boys to hear other outstanding musicians.”
Based in Boston, From the Top is an hour-long classical music program where its host, pianist Christopher O’Riley, usually accompanies student musicians and then interviews them. His disarming, bantering style contrasts with the music selected for performance during the program, which is always demanding repertoire from composers of all eras.
The Boychoir’s portion of the program at Richardson will show its diverse skills, covering baroque, American folk, popular and sacred styles: “Ubi caritas” from Quatre Motets Sur Des Themes Gregoriens (Four Motets on Gregorian Themes) by 20th-century French composer Maurice Durufle; the Beatles’ “When I’m 64” (arranged by Deke Sharon); and an a capella version of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” (arranged by former Boychoir music director John Kuzma).
Violinist Gallia Kastner, 16, from Arlington Heights, Illinois, and cellist Julia Rosenbaum, 17, from Potomac, Maryland, will perform with the Boychoir in two verses of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christ Lag in Todes Banden (Christ Lay in the Bonds of Death).” Kastner will also perform Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz-Scherzo,” Op. 34, and Rosenbaum will play “Elegie,” Op. 24, by Gabriel Faure.
“Tom [Vignieri] and I discussed what should be featured and what would be relevant to such an event,” said Malvar-Ruiz. “To be 75 years old is no small feat. During that time we have had some wonderful musical moments and we want to highlight them in the broadcast.
“The ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’ is part of that and has been in our repertoire for some time. We have some changed voices who can handle the tuba part all the way up to the piccolos. It’s a very clever arrangement, and it has really been well received as long as we’ve been singing it.”
Malvar-Ruiz said the Bach, with its Easter theme, was the first piece he ever conducted with the Boychoir, and that the Durufle piece would also show off the range of the young voices.
“I chose this piece because the makeup of the Boychoir lets the changing voices participate,” he said. “It has quite a low bass part and we happen to have some voices who can handle that. It hasn’t always been the case. The Boychoir started out as mostly a treble choir.”
While From the Top worked with the Boychoir before, students are customarily asked to audition for the show, usually after winning a significant national or regional musical competition, which is the case with Kastner and Rosenbaum. Vignieri said that while it is From the Top’s 272nd show, “It is our first from Princeton. It’s long overdue. But we have over the years featured a number of very talented young musicians from Princeton.”
Princeton-area student musicians have appeared on the show four times. Wei-han Wu, a pianist, was 18 when he performed at Carnegie Hall in April, 2000; Daniel Suo, of Princeton, also a pianist, was 15 when he appeared at the State Theater in New Brunswick in May, 2003; and Nicholas Bodnar, of Princeton, a cellist, was 16 when he appeared at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia in May, 2005.
Angie Zhang is the most recent From the Top alumna from Princeton Junction. A junior at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South, she is a pianist who attends Juilliard Pre-College every Saturday in New York City and who will be graduating a year early to enroll at Juilliard. There are several videos on YouTube of her performing on the piano.
In 2008 she formed a piano trio with From the Top alums, and in 2011 she won the Gina Bachauer Piano Competition at Juilliard and received the Nordmann Scholarship to attend the pre-college program there. She met people from the show at a festival in Aspen, Colorado, submitted recordings of her performances later that year, and secured a spot on From the Top’s 245th show in February, 2012, at the New England Conservatory in Boston.
She showed a great deal of self-confidence in choosing the challenging “Basso Ostinato” by the contemporary composer Rodion Shchedrin, a piece that was not part of her personal repertoire.
“I learned it just for the taping,” Zhang said. “The show doesn’t want a very long piece, so I wanted one that would be exciting for the audience and for me and would also be good for radio.”
The show and the host hold a pizza party for the young performers the night before so everyone can get to know each other. Zhang said it helped break the ice. “We got together and talked about life, sports, not just about music. We had a really fun time, laughing and making jokes. Then we had a dress rehearsal to make sure we were ready for the show,” she said.
“I was not nervous. The From the Top people were really friendly, and I felt really at home. I had already met Christopher O’Riley in Aspen. It was very organized, and I knew exactly what I had to do when I got to Boston. It was a great experience, and I met a lot of new people. I had never done a taping before, but it was really nice. There was a full house and the audience was very supportive. I really enjoyed those three days.”
Zhang’s father is a banker. Her mother is a piano teacher and was her first teacher when she was four years old. She said she practices the piano two to three hours a day, except for Saturdays when she goes to classes in New York, and that she particularly enjoys performing chamber music. That’s no surprise after the collegiality she experienced last year. But besides cementing her commitment to music, perhaps it has also provided some long-term insight.
“I would like to perform,” she said, “and, hopefully, be part of an outreach to young children to get them interested in classical music. Being on the show made me more aware of how we impact people and how music can change the world.”
From the Top radio show taping, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Sunday, May 19, 4 p.m. $30 to $50. 609-258-9220 or utickets.princeton.edu.