Historically, boys choirs in Catholic churches were the training ground for many composers, from Guillaume Dufay in the 15th century to Puccini and Bruckner in the 19th. Schubert was a choirboy in Vienna in 1809, when he may have sung at the grand memorial service for Haydn, who had himself been a choirboy at the city’s cathedral in the previous century. The tradition is still going strong at the Escolania de Montserrat, a boys choir school in Spain that is making its first American tour, with a stop Sunday afternoon in the Music Center at Strathmore.
The boys, about 40 of them, normally sing for liturgical services in the Basilica of Montserrat, a Benedictine monastery in Catalonia. The concert opened with a meditative section of sacred music, including a Gregorian introit, “Germinans germinabit” and “Imperayritz de la ciutat ioyosa,” one of the pieces from the “Llibre vermell,” a 14th century codex of music composed for the pilgrims at Montserrat. A setting of the “Salve regina” chant by Joan Cererols, a former Montserrat choirboy who became monk and choirmaster there, featured echoes of each phrase by a quartet of soloists, stationed in the balcony above the stage.
In all of their selections, the boys sang with near-faultless intonation and exceptional musical sensitivity, a tribute to the formation given by their leader, Bernat Vivancos, another former Montserrat choirboy whose “El cant dels ocells” was one of the highlights of the Catalan folk song-centered second half. The exceptional quality of their music-making extended to pieces of all historical periods, including a Handelish “Angelus ad pastores ait” by Narcís Casanoves, another former Montserrat choirboy, and the more romantic motets by Àngel Rodamilans and Pablo Casals, both in honor of the Black Virgin of Montserrat.
Downey is a freelance writer.