Listening to well-trained boys singing in a cathedral is a sublime experience. No wonder that for centuries there has been a European tradition of boy choristers in church services; hearing them sing is enough to waft prayers to heaven.
I was reminded of this hearing the Northwest Boychoir Saturday night at St. Mark’s Cathedral singing one of Handel‘s Coronation anthems, Pergolesi’s “Stabat mater” and Faure’s Requiem.
Joseph Crnko has directed the Boychoir for 32 years. He is a master at engaging the boys’ interest and enjoyment, training them and teaching them to bring out their musical understanding and the best quality in their voices, starting with children as young as kindergarten. These go through several preparatory choir levels before reaching the Boychoir itself which travels abroad and often sings with the Seattle Symphony, but it was still astonishing Saturday night to see kids who looked to be no bigger than first-graders singing their hearts out with confidence, true pitch, vocal agility and close attention to Crnko. The choir goes up to the tenors and basses, who transition smoothly under his care when their voices break.
The Handel performance was glorious, easy to imagine it in Westminster Abbey as a king was crowned. Pergolesi originally composed the “Stabat mater” for soprano and alto solos, but today much of it is performed by choruses like this one. One child’s pure, soaring soprano voice took a solo role in the “Quis es homo” and in the “Sancta mater,” while the alto roles in both works were undertaken by two other boys.
For the Faure, baritone soloist Martin Rothwell, a choir member from 1992 for 11 years who studied under Jane Eaglen at UW and now has a singing career in the area, joined the boys for the “Hostias” and the “Libera Me,” his voice just the right complement and style to match them, while another soprano soloist took on the “Pie Jesu.”
There were some moments when choir soprano pitch seemed a hair under the note but these were few, and couldn’t detract from the overall beauty of the singing throughout the concert.
It’s a fascinating experience watching Crnko conduct. He shapes each phrase with detailed and expressive gestures, smooth, precise yet expansive, sometimes with great sweeping curves of his arm, endings perfectly designed to bring out exactly what he wants. The children meanwhile only glance at the music, their eyes on the conductor and what he is conveying. Crnko achieves all this with two two-hour rehearsals a week, though the boys sound like students at a full-time choir school.
Only the piano accompaniment did not rise to the level of the rest of the performance. Whether this was a poor instrument or the acoustics at St. Mark‘s do not lend themselves to piano, it sounded tinny and cheap, while the pianist, Benjamin Kromholz, made a few flubs and sounded as though his heart was not in it.