First woman at helm helps boys change tune

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

During a harsh Viennese winter when powdery snow blankets the park surrounding the 17th-century Augarten Palais, Agnes Grossmann says she can almost feel herself treading in the footsteps of classical music's giants.

"I feel very close to them and somehow connected," says Ms. Grossmann.

She should. As the first female director of the Vienna Choir Boys, Grossmann names Josef Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Schubert among those whose works have nurtured her throughout a distinguished musical career, one that started some 50 years ago.

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The Vienna Choir Boys are celebrating their landmark 500th anniversary, and under the direction of Grossmann the most famous children's choir in the world is on the cusp of change.

Grossmann is working to ease the well-known militaristic approach to training the young boys. And next month, girls will be admitted to the choir's kindergarten and primary school for the first time.

In an interview, Grossmann reflected on her own childhood, musical career, and her approach to steering the prestigious choir with a gentler hand.

Sitting in her high-ceilinged office overlooking the intricate gardens of this once-Hapsburg-owned Baroque palace, Grossmann recalls, "At 3-1/2 I started playing the piano. By 4 I had already decided I wanted to become a pianist."

The task of training the young and determined Agnes fell on her father, Ferdinand Grossmann, a brilliant musician who for 30 years directed the Vienna Choir Boys as well the Vienna State Opera Choir and to this day remains a leading figure in Austrian choral singing.

Respectful of her talent and wary of the young Agnes becoming a child prodigy, he refrained from giving her formal musical teaching. Instead, he opted for a creative environment that shunned regimentation. "I was certainly not made to practice for four hours a day," she says. Her father's careful approach would carry through to Agnes's own directing later.

Encouraged by her father and mother, the young Agnes pursued her piano career and graduated from Vienna's famous Hochschule fr Musik. Four years later she went on to receive the acclaimed Mozart Interpretation Prize in Vienna. She was at the height of her success, touring the United States and Canada, when in 1973 a physical ailment disabled her right hand. She left piano for conducting, studying orchestral and choral conducting between 1974 and 1978 at the Hochschule. This led to successful conducting stints in Vienna and Canada.

Grossmann was both touched and stunned in 1996 when she was asked to become artistic director of the world-renowned Vienna Choir Boys and enter the male-dominated world of boys' choir music, which dates back to medieval times when churches prohibited singing by women and girls. "I was completely astonished," she recalls.

"I love children and am, of course, demanding in terms of quality. But on the other hand, I do not believe in dictatorial or military discipline," says Grossmann, who has worked to ease the rigid schedules of the young singers, altering a 500- year tradition of near-military discipline.

For a start, the boys start school at 8 a.m. rather than 7 a.m. They are also allowed more leisure time, and parents have been encouraged to take a more active role. "I want to give the boys pleasure in their work," Grossmann says.

The softer approach has also been successful on stage where the performances - sometimes described as stiff and inexpressive - have become more natural and free. Reducing the number of concerts, a rigorous routine that keeps the boys away from home three to four months of the year, is one way Grossmann intends to hone the quality of the music. "With more time to prepare, you can go into new shades of expression because you know [the music] well enough to explore the content in more depth," she says.

Music training is still intense, with two hours of choir rehearsal and some 20 minutes of individual voice training a day for the four choirs comprising 25 boys each that make up the institution.

Grossmann is updating the repertoire as well, working to include selections from jazz, rock, and musicals. "The children should be at home in all different styles of music," she says.

In another major change, in December girls will be admitted to the choir school for the first time. Grossmann says that although she believes girls should have the same possibilities for musical development as boys, a mixed choir is unlikely because of the different qualities in the voices of boys and girls. But "give me a little bit of time, and I will show you what girls can do," she says.

One of the four choirs that make up the Vienna Choir Boys is on a 75 city North American Tour. Some stops include:

Nov. 24 - St. Louis

Nov. 27 - Chicago

Nov. 29 - Birmingham, Ala.

Dec. 2 - Charleston, S.C.

Dec. 8 - Baltimore

Dec. 12 - New Haven, Conn.

Dec. 13 - New York

Dec. 18 - Worcester, Mass.

Jan. 22 - Denver

Jan. 26 - Palm Desert, Calif.

Jan. 30 - Los Angeles

Feb. 1 - Mesquite, Nev.

Feb. 6 - San Rafael, Calif.

Feb. 11 - Salt Lake City

Feb. 16 - Corpus Christie, Texas

Feb. 26, 27 - Pensacola, Fla.

March 3 - Tampa, Fla.

March 12 - Atlanta

March 16 - New Albany, Ind.

March 18 - Maysville, Ken.

March 20, 21 - Milwaukee

March 23 - Toledo, Ohio

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