Vienna Boys’ Choir storms Mumbai with bhajans, qawwalis at NCPA
In an interview with HT, president and artistic director Gerald Wirth discusses history, legacy and music choices.
Arriving to perform for a packed audience in Mumbai, a group of boys aged 10 to 14 shouldered a legacy that goes back 500 years.
The Vienna Boys’ Choir, one of the oldest and most prestigious in the world, is back in the country after 15 years, on a tour titled A Passage to India. They performed in Delhi earlier this week, in Mumbai on Wednesday, and will return to Delhi for one more performance on Friday.
The choir group is a diverse one; each batch typically has about 20% of its students from outside Austria. The current group has students from Japan, Korea and a 12-year-old from the Syrian town of Afrin. He played a local string instrument, the oud, also known as sas. The conductor was Jimy Chiang from Hong Kong.
The music was equally diverse — qawwalis, bhajans and music from North America.
The East and West section included music from Aaron Copland, Billy Joel, and Michael Jackson’s ‘We are the world’. Also performed was Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite bhajan, ‘Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram’, and the qawwali composed by Amir Khusro, ‘Man Kunto Maula’.
“I chose a bhajan as it is simpler to pick up, unlike a complex raag, and this one because it was the favourite of Mahatma Gandhi,” said Gerald Wirth, president and artistic director of the choir.
And Qawwali as a form is popular with the choir anyway. “The boys love the energy and mood of these songs and it allows them to play the percussion, so it is now a part of our repertoire. Songs like ‘Allah Hu Allah’ are a favourite,” he added.
The choir of 23 performed at the National Centre for the Performing Arts. “It is a really special trip for the boys. India is culturally very different from what they experience in Europe, so they enjoy the newness a lot. The audience is also receptive, which is very encouraging,” Wirth said.
The choir traces its history to the late Middle Ages and the Viennese royal court, and originally performed only for select audiences. In 1920, after the fall of the Austrian Empire, the court orchestra was disbanded. The choir was survived as a result of private efforts and, in 1924, the Vienna Boys’ Choir in its current form came to be.
With one crucial change. “Driven by the need for money to sustain it, the choir started performing for the general public and touring the world,” says Wirth. Now, the institute performs 300 concerts every year, with students who study music and academics at the Choir School at Augartenpalais, a baroque palace in Vienna, for six months and tour for the rest of the time.
Gradually, the kind of music performed also slowly changed. “Along with sacred music that ranges from early Renaissance compositions to Mozart, more music that connects with the audience became a part of the repertoire,” says Wirth.