Three choirs, whose members range in age from nine to 76, lift their voices separately and together in a concert to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the American Boychoir. The celebration takes place in Richardson Hall on the Princeton University campus at 3 p.m. on Sunday, March 30. The Boychoir’s Resident Training Choir, the neophytes, and the Boychoir’s Alumni Chorus, the veterans, join the Boychoir’s high-profile Concert Choir. The Concert Choir’s most recent performance was in Bach’s "St. Matthew Passion" at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic and Kurt Masur; Westminster Choir College of Rider University also participated in the "Passion" performances.
Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, director of the American Boychoir since July, 2004, conducts its combined Concert Choir and Alumni Chorus in portions of Giovanni Pergolesi’s "Stabat Mater" and Antonio Vivaldi’s "Gloria." Singing independently, the Alumni Chorus, founded in 2004, is directed by its founder, James Litton, director of the Boychoir from 1985 to 2001, and now director emeritus. The Boychoir’s resident training choir sings under the leadership of its director, Nathan Wadley.
Formed in Columbus, Ohio, in 1937, the Boychoir moved to Princeton in 1950. Its members, boys from grades four through eight, live and learn at the American Boychoir School, the only non-sectarian boys’ residential choir school in the United States.
Both Malvar-Ruiz and Wadley began their associations with the Boychoir when Litton was director. Malvar came to the Boychoir as associate Director in 2000, when Litton was in his last year as director. Wadley’s association with the Boychoir began when, at age 11, he became a chorister under Litton’s tutelage.
Actively engaged with the Boychoir in his emeritus status, Litton founded the Alumni Chorus, three years after his retirement. Ranging in age from 14 to 76, the group rehearses monthly at the Boychoir School in Princeton. Members come from Vermont and Virginia, as well as other states within weekend reach of Princeton. "Every decade of the Boychoir school is represented in the Alumni Choir," Litton says in a telephone interview. "Four members of the group were Boychoir students in the 1940s, before it moved to Princeton. I was in junior high school at the time. One of the members is the chairman of the Boychoir Board, Chester Douglass, who lives in Boston and is head of Harvard’s School of Dentistry. There are about six alumni who graduated last year."
Director Malvar-Ruiz accounts for featuring Pergolesi and Vivaldi in the anniversary concert. "The Pergolesi "Stabat Mater" has been associated with the Boychoir since its beginnings," he says in a telephone interview from his Lawrenceville home. "Every graduate class has sung the piece, at least once." Malvar-Ruiz is an easy-going conversationalist, whose sense of humor comes through over the telephone.
While tradition determined the inclusion of the Pergolesi piece, which is scored for soprano voices, Malvar-Ruiz and Litton chose the Vivaldi "Gloria," written for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass voices, in order to showcase the collaboration of the Concert Choir and the Alumni Chorus. The two soloists in the Vivaldi are a soprano, Sheherazade Pantaki, a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois in Champaign, the only female vocalist in the program, and an alto, Jeffrey Williams, who works in Manhattan and graduated from the Boychoir school in the 1990s.
"My family is musical in the sense that they love singing, and like to sing after a meal," he says. "But I am the only professional musician even in the extended family."
Malvar-Ruiz’s parents were not aware of his musical talent until his fifth grade teacher intervened. "She noticed that I learned music by ear," he says. "I could play the recorder parts at school without reading music. My teacher told my parents that I should study music, and threatened not to graduate me if I didn’t study music. They bought a piano, and I had private lessons, first in piano, then in solfege [sight-singing]."
After earning degrees in piano performance and music theory from Madrid’s Real Conservatorio Superior de Music, Malvar-Ruiz attended the Kodaly Institute in Kecskemet, Hungary, for two years. "Moving from Madrid to Kecskemet was quite a transition," he says. "The school was in an old monastery. Music was the language spoken 24/7. Actually, the courses were taught in English. I learned a little Hungarian, but not enough to follow discussions about music. I could order food in a restaurant or ask for directions. My Hungarian was very basic.
"The Kodaly school was an experience that changed my life. I went there because of the emphasis on choral music, and worked with Peter Erdei, one of the best choral conductors in Europe. I had heard about him and the Institute when I was still in Madrid. I learned about children’s choirs in Kecskemet and my love for treble choir began then.
"Not only did I get a great education in choral music in Hungary, but I learned about teaching music; that was an extra benefit," continues Malvar-Ruiz. "Kodaly was a pedagogical genius. I saw many ways of teaching music. I learned that you can only teach musical literacy by using materials close to the students. You have to use the folk music of their culture. The method is very gradual. You don’t go from A to C without going first to B."
The transition from Hungary to the United States was easier than the transition from Madrid to Kecskemet, says Malvar-Ruiz, who earned a master’s degree in choral conducting from Ohio State University in 1996. "Everyone was extremely inclusive and kind in the Midwest. I could really appreciate American life. In fact, I appreciated it so much that I’m still here."
Malvar-Ruiz’s fiance, Melissa Keylock, is also a choral musician. She works at Moorestown Friends’ School and conducts the Princeton Girls Choir. The couple is planning to elope.
A doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois, Malvar-Ruiz has chosen as his thesis topic a comparative study of boychoir schools, current and historic. He has singled out the American Boychoir School and St. Thomas in New York City as modern schools, and the Escolania de Monserrat in Barcelona and New College in Oxford, England, as past examples. "I want to compare how music and other subjects can be taught," he says. I’ve done some research and have learned that the schedule of the Escolania in the 16th century is not that different from ours at the Boychoir School. They studied academics in the morning and music in the afternoon.
At this point Malvar-Ruiz has finished his course work, but is not sure when he’ll assemble the results of his research. "I have no time to write," he says. Referring to the directorship of the Boychoir, he comments, "This position is not 100 percent, but 150 percent."
Invited to assess his impact at the Boychoir School, Malvar-Ruiz says: "As associate music director for four years, I was in charge of the music theory program. I revamped it, using various texts, and methods, and drawing on my own experience. Now, the graduating boys, even though they’ve only finished with eighth grade, know music theory at the level of second year college students.
"After I was appointed music director, I thought that my mission was like the role of Janus, the two-faced Roman god who looked both forward and back. There’s the need to keep tradition and also to keep the Boychoir school relevant and in touch with the present time."
Malvar-Ruiz’s increasing recognition as an expert in the adolescent male changing voice is an example of his Janus-like role. "According to tradition, once a boy’s voice begins to change – `to break,’ as they called it – a boy should not sing," he says. "The Boychoir used to ask boys whose voices were changing to leave. John Kuzma, Jim Litton’s predecessor, was the first to abandon that.
`Meanwhile, it’s been proven that if boys sing through the change, they will do no harm. In fact, the range of their voice will expand once the change is over. Jim Litton expanded Kuzma’s idea by giving parts to boys whose voices had changed," Malvar-Ruiz says.
Litton altered the sound of the Boychoir by expanding its exclusively treble range to include the deeper sounds of boys whose voices had changed. The benefit, he says, 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 thought of themselves as discards.
"I was able to learn much from Litton’s musicianship and experience," Malvar-Ruiz says. Asked to summarize his insights about the voices of adolescent boys, he says, "I learned that every boy is different. Keeping boys whose voices have changed is as much psychological as it is technical. I spend a lot of time convincing boys that it’s OK to sing just one or two notes, and that it’s OK when their voice cracks. Adolescent boys almost forget how to walk. They fall a lot. Their muscles and bones are growing, and they’re not in control. It’s the same thing with their voices. The larynx grows. It takes a while to learn how to manage the new muscles."
A bit like Janus in his own way, Litton still trains boys in the Concert Choir. "When the Concert Choir goes on tour, six to nine boys stay behind. I rehearse those boys every day. It’s almost a private lesson. It’s a lot of voice work, and it’s very enjoyable."
With Malvar-Ruiz in charge and Litton still available, the American Boychoir joins the past and the present. The concert to celebrate its 70th anniversary blends looking forward and looking back.
70th Anniversary Celebration Concert, Sunday, March 30, 3 p.m. American Boychoir, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Vivaldi’s "Gloria" and portions of Pergolesi’s "Stabat Mater," accompanied by a Baroque ensemble. The combined choirs present a variety of works by American composers. $22 to $47. 888-BOYCHOIR.
Also, Wednesday, April 9, 7:30 p.m., St. Ann’s Catholic 1253 Lawrenceville Road, Lawrenceville. The American Boychoir will present a "concert of appreciation," free and open to the public, to thank the church for opening their doors to the choir after a February, 2007, flood left their dormitory unusable. The parish remained the boys’ home until June, 2007.