Correction: An earlier version of this story said: “Washington does not have a boys choir.”
Nestled at the top of the Montserrat mountain, 53 boys awake to daybreak at 7 a.m. Hours later, they enter the basilica, a line of white robes against a gilded altar. These boys, ranging in age from 9 to 14, perform with the Escolania de Montserrat, one of the oldest boys choirs in Europe and music schools in Spain. And until their voices deepen with age, they sing twice each day for 3 million pilgrims who visit the Benedictine abbey of Santa Maria de Montserrat just outside Barcelona each year.
But this week, their meticulous routine is in flux because of the choir’s first U.S. tour in its 800-year history. On Sunday, they’ll take the stage at Strathmore to sing a program of Marian hymns, Gregorian chant and Catalan folk songs, many of which have never been heard in the United States.
There’s a reason for the choir’s limited touring schedule and for its relative anonymity when compared with the Vienna Boys Choir or the St. Thomas Boys Choir of Leipzig Germany, which spend months of the year trotting around the globe: The Escolania is not a concert choir and rarely performs outside of the basilica.
“For us, it is most important to sing in the church; there are not a lot of choirs that sing two times in the church each day,” said Bernat Vivancos, director of the choir and an alumnus of the Escolania de Montserrat. “The tour is a very special occasion for us. It is important that the music and the long tradition of the Escolania is known.”
It is why Neeta Helms, founder of Classical Movements, the group presenting the choir in Washington and New York, considers this tour to be a rare look at the Escolania’s long tradition and exceptional talent.
“I have a special place in my heart for boys choirs and this choir,” Helms said. “And in this day and age that is faster paced, there are so many things pulling people away. It’s remarkable to hear this sound. It’s a brief moment in the span of a person’s life when they have this beautiful sound.”
The sound of the Escolania, however, is unique even among boys choirs. Vivancos calls it a “gold” or “red wine” type of sound vs. the light and bright sound of many boys choirs. Although all the boys are sopranos or altos, the blend of the Escolania is richer and darker, complementing the abbey’s mystical setting and the choir’s uncommon repertoire.
The choir’s sound inspired many through the ages, from Spanish kings to Catholic martyrs killed in the Spanish Civil War. Composers, too, were inspired by the choristers’ voices. On this tour, the choir will sing “Nigra Sum,” by Pablo Casals, the great cellist and conductor. Marta Istomin Casals, a former artistic director of the Kennedy Center, says her late husband wrote all his sacred music for the choir.
“Many composers come out of Montserrat,” she said. “Casals used to spend two or three days with them in Montserrat in the summers. He was very inspired by this atmosphere and their pursuit of excellence and expression. He dedicated his religious works to them.”
One of the unique facets of boys choirs is their extended history and the amount of music available for them to perform. Boys choirs predate the orchestra, the opera and other genres of music that seem ancient to many audiences. Originating in monasteries of Europe when women were not allowed to sing in churches, the choirs draw on centuries of music composed for the male voice, with concerts programs beginning in the 14th century and ending with contemporary compositions.
The choirs have needed to modernize in recent decades. While the Escolania de Montserrat is a rigorous music school where some boys live, it recently relaxed its boarding requirement to attract students who want to live with their families. And while the students at the Escolania learn two instruments in addition to choral music, Vivancos stresses that they are normal boys who play soccer and video games. While many will go on to perform with choirs or orchestras later in life, others pursue careers outside of music.
Helms says that while boys choirs may seem like a reminder of eras past, their popularity is stable if not rising, particularly in the United States. She praised the Pacific Boychoir Academy in Oakland, Calif., which has won three Grammys since its creation in 1998. Although Washington does not have a boys choir school, she says children’s choruses are immensely popular among audiences and participants.
“I am truly one of the people who believes that youth orchestras and children’s choirs have a huge pull in the modern day,” she said. “In America, children’s choruses have such high standards, and they are becoming more common in China and Korea.”
Istomin Casals agrees that boys choirs and children’s choirs have maintained their international status and popularity.
“I just came back from Puerto Rico, and they have the most wonderful children’s chorus,” she said. “I believe we all realize that in order to really enjoy music, you have to be exposed in your early childhood. The choirs are not only attractive to older audiences, but also to children. They are an inspiration for children and older people.”
presented by Classical Movements at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, Md. Sunday at 3 p.m. $25-$35. Call
301-581-5100 or go to strathmore.org.