Heavenly voices

Conducted by Artistic Director Professor Franz Farnbergerand fronted by his deputy Stumpner as well as countertenor Alois Mühlbacher, the one and only St. Florian Boys’ Choir delivered a sublime performance at the futuristic Shenzhen Concert Hall.

Founded in 1071, St. Florian Boys’ Choir is indubitably one of the foremost boys’ choirs in the world. Situated 15 kilometers south of Linz, equidistant from the musical powerhouses of Vienna and Salzburg, the magnificent St. Florian Monastery is rivalled only by its counterparts in Melk, Klosterneuburg and Göttweig. This time-honored monastery following the Rule of St. Augustine dating back to the early 5th century is the home of its namesake boys’ choir.

Legend has it that Saint Florian, a Roman magistrate, was martyred for his faith in 304 during the Diocletianic Persecution, the last but largest of its kind before Constantine I finally legalized Christianity via the Edict of Milan in 313. The precursor of the St. Florian Monastery dated back to an early Christian burial ground of the martyr, whereas the baroque architecture was successively designed by Carlo Carlone and Jakob Prandtauer.

St. Florian Boys’ Choir is by some accounts the third oldest boys’ choir still in existence, predated by only Aachen Cathedral Choir and Regensburg Cathedral Choir, founded in 796 and 975 respectively (the latter was for three decades conducted by Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, elder brother of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI). Over the years, the choir has produced a stellar list of graduates, including composer Anton Bruckner, tenor Kurt Azesberger and countertenor Alois Mühlbacher. A men’s choir section was founded in 1989, consisting mainly of former choirboys.

Born out of religion and music, St. Florian Boys’ Choir used to concern itself exclusively with the making of church music at the eponymous monastery. It was not until the 1980s that the choir began embarking on world tours, recording albums, participating in operas and giving concerts abroad. Having performed with leading conductors, soloists and ensembles at the most prestigious venues around the world, St. Florian Boys’ Choir went on a seven-leg grand tour across China this summer, gracing Beijing, Tianjin, Baoding, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Zhongshan and Shenzhen. The final concert was a spellbinding musical journey from the 15th century to the present day.

Beginning with lesser-known Renaissance pieces by Heinrich Isaac, Giovanni Gastoldi and Thomas Morley, the concert progressed through canonical arias and art songs by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Gioachino Rossini, Franz Schubert, Anton Bruckner and Franz Lehár, to contemporary compositions by John Rutter. Alois Mühlbacher’s interpretation of Henry Purcell’s “Music for a While” and George Frideric Handel’s “Ombra mai fu” was mesmerizing. The talismanic boy soprano of yesteryear, whose compelling portrayal of the Young Shepherd in Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser and Oberto in Handel’s Alcina earned him rave reviews, has evolved into a countertenor of versatility and virtuosity, different from but surely soon to rival Max Emanuel Cenčić and Philippe Jaroussky.

Loyal to its Austrian roots, St. Florian Boys’ Choir presented folk classics such as “Edelweiss” and “Kein schöner Land in dieser Zeit” with celestial purity. Dressed in lederhosen and with percussion instruments and props, the boys sang and danced with genuine joy and angelic innocence in Bandltanz and Schuhplattler. Junior Artistic Director Markus Stumpner, himself a former boy soprano famed for his rendition of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, appeared as much the elder brother to the choirboys as he is their vocal instructor. The spirit was not merely collegiate, but familial.

Arranging Johann Strauss the Elder’s Radetzky-Marsch as well as Johann Strauss the Younger’s Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka, “An der schönen blauen Donau” and Kaiser-Walzer into songs, Professor Franz Farnberger breathed new life into the timeless masterpieces reminiscent of Habsburg glory. Artistic Director of St. Florian Boys’ Choir since 1983, he was previously a conductor of the Vienna Boys’ Choir for 7. Conducting the 26 choirboys and 10 choristers onstage from a grand piano, a finger, a nod or wink from him would suffice – such was the level of tacit understanding. With his consent, a chubby choirboy directed procession like a victorious field marshal, holding a ceremonial baton.

Pleasant surprise extended well into the encore section, when the choir sang “Mo Li Hua”, a Chinese folk song dating back to the reign of the Qianlong Emperor.

The concert was truly superlative, moving and touching in equal measures, a horizon-widening and soul-stirring experience. It was enlightenment, emotion and enjoyment rolled into one, without an ounce of artificiality. Founded in 1991, Wu Promotion is a leading performing arts promoter in China, organizing more than 500 events per year nationally and abroad, including the annual tours of various world-renowned ensembles in China.

Share on