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When the Vienna Boys Choir give the world premiere of a new work by Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin next week, concert-goers might be skeptical when the lads sing the words “I love a sunburnt country”. Of the 25 boys, aged between 9 and 14, most don’t speak a word of English and hadn’t set foot on Australian soil until this week, touching down in Brisbane to begin their national tour. Yet they will be performing Kats-Chernin’s setting of the iconic Aussie poem My Country by Dorothea MacKellar.
Conductor Manolo Cagnin admits it was initially “difficult” for the boys to relate to the piece, Land of Sweeping Plains, when they had never seen the sweeping planes. But a trip to Taronga Zoo was a good place to start. “Now we’re feeling the magical atmosphere,” he says, “So we are absolutely proud to sing it. Elena did a great job and it is one of the best pieces on our program.”
The program for the Australian tour includes music by Carl Orff and Mozart – mother’s milk for these well-trained young choristers – and a psalm setting by Schubert, one of the most famous Vienna Boys Choir alumni in its staggering 500-year history.
Kats-Chernin witnessed this long, rich singing tradition firsthand when she visited the choir in Vienna to workshop her piece. “It was beautiful to witness such concentration, purity of voices and intonation,” she enthuses. “I realised what great possibilities there were: these gifted boys could sing anything and produced a divine sound.
That “divine sound” is honed through a strict and rigorous practice schedule of two hours a day, Monday to Saturday; on top of that there are individual voice lessons and private sessions for soloists. It is also compulsory for each student to learn an instrument.
But Cagnin insists it’s not enough to strive for the pure-toned choir-of-angels sound for which the choir is internationally renowned. “I always say to the guys, ‘Ok, I don’t need angels.’ We all look angels but we’re not. I need guys who sing with power and have the concentration and mentality to get inside the music.”
Case in point: twelve-year-old chorister Anton, present during Kats-Chernin’s workshop, says he was “excited” by the process of generating ideas with the composer. “She gave each of us a word to sing, on a sequence of notes, floods, famine, sunburnt country. That was a total surprise to me, and I could feel myself smiling! She then asked if we could play stones – ordinary stones you pick up in the woods or on a beach. When we bang them together [in the piece], it sounds like the stones are talking.”
Kats-Chernin says she “knew that using the voices of children would add freshness and energy” to the poem, capturing the essence of the invigorating landscape MacKellar describes.
Cagnin is also quick to point out that he conducts a “cosmopolitan choir with boys from Ireland, China, Africa and Korea” as well as from its hometown of Vienna.
Perhaps it is this multicultural spirit, then, that aligns the choir’s centuries-old European tradition with the Australian way of life.
Uzbekistani-born Kats-Chernin can relate to the boys’ reactions to seeing Australia for the first time. “When I first came to this country in the 1970s I had never experienced a landscape like this before, with so much contrast and space.
“I love the line ‘core of my heart, my country’ in the poem and this is central to my setting. I was not born here but this line touches me because this country has become a part of me too.”