These choirboys sing in sync, not 'N Sync

Libera is classical music's answer to kid pop groups.

With the sensational sales of pop boy bands like 'N Sync, it was only a matter of time before an enterprising conductor exploited the centuries-old tradition of British boy choirs.

Now Robert Prizeman, music director at a modest Anglican church, St. Philip's Church in Norbury - a southern London suburb - has done just that.

Assembling a group of 35 boys aged 7 to 14, he has dubbed them Libera. Their debut CD ("Libera," Warner Classics) spent several weeks on the Top 10 classical record charts, and their second disc, "Luminosa," is mirroring that success. A Warner press release warns, "Don't call them choirboys. Libera prefer to be called a vocal group - a real boy band, if you like."

Mr. Prizeman explains the semantic difference: "They could be called choirboys - in that they have unbroken, treble voices, and they sing together in a choir. But their name Libera also represents a freedom from the more accepted classical choral textures and repertoire...."

Indeed, "Luminosa" boasts choral numbers arranged by Prizeman from a surprising variety of sources, including Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals," Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, Pachelbel's "Canon," and Debussy's "Clair de Lune." Set to Latin words and recorded in an echoey acoustic style, the results have a churchy feel without being doctrinal.

The result has appealed to a broad cross-section of showbiz stars, who eagerly booked Libera for TV and recording studio work, including Dame Edna Everage (Australian comedian Barry Humphries), Elton John, Luciano Pavarotti, Neil Diamond, and Michael Crawford. They've also sung for film soundtracks, including "Hannibal."

Steven Geraghty, a soloist on "Luminosa," tells the Monitor: "With sessions for other people, we often don't know what it's for until we get to the studio. We weren't allowed to see the pictures of 'Hannibal,' of course. But we didn't even know it was a film when we turned up."

Libera can give the kids a measure of prestige among their classmates, although 16-year-old Liam O'Kane notes that each singer "has to pretend they like all sorts of hip music with their schoolmates. Some of it we do like anyway - but I'm not into rap.... Ska punk is more my thing."

Steven adds that singing with celebrities has its advantages, but if Libera is just singing "some silly children's choir type of thing," then it doesn't give them street credibility. "I don't think Eminem would want a choirboy backing," he says.

The boys of Libera nevertheless understand the importance of music in their own educations. Prizeman explains that he works with schools where he meets potential new choristers by working with them in the course of their school music. The school then introduces the idea of the choir to the parents.

"At that stage, singing becomes their hobby," Prizeman says. "The boys don't have to attend - it's their choice. So, in a sense, my job as their director is made easier because they want to be there. It's not like a compulsory activity at school."

New recruiting is essential each year as boys' voices change: "Few would deny that there is a special quality to a boy's voice in the few years leading to its change. Almost as if the flower has to bloom more gloriously because its petals will drop sooner."

But one authority on boy choirs, archivist Stephen Beet, says that the boys "do not produce the full rich head tone" that boy sopranos did in cathedral choirs in years gone by. Other purists in the British media have complained about their commercial sound, often modified by the use of studio equipment.

Clearly, Libera is not attempting to rival the great classical boy choirs like the Kings College Choir, in Cambridge, England; Germany's Tolzer Boys Choir; or the Monserrat Cathedral Choir in Spain. But if taken on its own terms, Libera is enjoyable, particularly on TV, where the visual element of a seeing gang of kids perform is refreshingly unpretentious.

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