Kevin Fox is the founding Artistic Director of the Pacific Boychoir Academy (he also teaches the boys 7th and 8th grade math). He’s been at every SFS concert with PBA since 2002, and even accepted the Grammy Award for their collaborative recording of Mahler’s Symphony #8 in 2010. Over the next couple of months, he will be gradually relinquishing his duties as he prepares to retire from the PBA. But first, he’s been preparing the choir for another performance with the SFS; and it’s one of classical music’s most mysterious and beautiful works: the Miserere by Gregorio Allegri. Fox took a moment to talk about the joys and challenges of working with boys whose voices are about to change, and the surprising relevance of the legend behind the Miserere.
Q. “Pacific Boychoir” is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Can you explain what the Pacfic Boychoir Academy is?
A. In 1998, the founders of PBA felt the Bay Area musical community deserved a boys choir on par with the finest boys choirs from around the world, and we felt the boys needed to sing every day – meaning they needed to go to school together. This is an adventure and an experience, something far beyond what others their age typically get to do. They are meeting and singing for the world, for orchestras, with other choirs, and with other amazing musicians. We also didn’t want boys to have to choose between sports and music, which both typically happen after school. The day school boys have their music during the day, and then can go do sports after school.
There are a number of boys choirs in America, but only five choir schools for boys, and only one of those west of the Appalachians. Having a choir school means we have lots of scheduling flexibility: so for example when the boys are at Davies Hall late at night for a concert, we cancel our music classes the next day and let them sleep in!
Q. What are the specific challenges and rewards of having a choir just of boys?
A. Boys choirs have been around a long time, and there is always a fascination with the idea that boys can be rambunctious at one moment, then focus and sing something like Allegri's Miserere at the next moment.
Sound-wise, boys’ voices have a particular clarity and intensity, and a finite shelf life, and our training addresses specific vocal characteristics of their voices, both individually and when they’re together. The rewards are often also the challenges: the choir has to get revoiced almost completely every year, with boys switching parts as their voices shift. The group everyone will hear for Allegri’s Miserere has a minority of boys who did the Missa Solemnis just months ago. It is this fleeting nature of the individual voices that makes us appreciate what we are hearing for any given concert. It is our training techniques that allow us consistency from year to year with shifting voices and personnel.
Q. How do you prepare for a concert with the San Francisco Symphony, and with their chorus?
A. We’ve been very lucky to do many sets with SFS and SFSC over the past 15 years, for probably more than a dozen conductors, so we’re familiar with the room and with the expectations. We do a lot of preparation, building in as many details as possible, and repeating things over and over so the chance of a mistake gets as low as possible. I often tell the boys they’re going to rehearse a piece until they’re sick of it, then rehearse it 10 more times. The SFSC is the best there is, and they are a constant inspiration to the boys with their energy, thoroughness, precision, and musicianship. It’s a real treat for the boys to be able to sing and work with them, and especially to work with MTT when he is on the podium.
Q. Allegri’s Miserere is a beautiful piece with an astonishing back story. It seems like the kind of tale boys in middle school would love: the music was kept secret for over 100 years, allowed only to be performed during Holy Week in the Sistine Chapel, and then “escaped” into the world when Mozart heard it and wrote the whole thing out by ear. How much of that do you tell the kids while you’re preparing the piece?
A. We have definitely been providing the background and legend of the piece, and want them to understand the role they play in the history of the piece. It’s eye-opening for them to know that the legend about Mozart transcribing the piece by ear is about a 14-year old Mozart, the same age as many of the boys performing this month! Like many a cappella pieces, Miserere was performed in different keys at different times. We consulted with a couple of our colleagues from the Oxbridge college choirs about what versions exist. Since the high C was a request from SFS, we’re doing that version, in this case edited by John Rutter.
In PBA tradition, at the annual summer camp in Healdsburg, music is played to wake the boys up in the morning, and music is played in the evening to settle them down for sleep. The Miserere is one of three pieces that has been played every year at camp, and the experienced boys know the new boys will be asked to listen for the number of high C’s they hear.
Q. Finally, a boys’ voice is a transient thing. By its very nature, a boys choir is constantly seeing members “graduate” to other things. What do you hope those boys take away from an experience like this?
A. The PBA Staff wants them to go on their way with a solid music education (their treble voices won’t last, but their music theory and musicianship skills will). But we also want them to take with them a sense of teamwork, excellence, and poise, and the value of hard work. We like to think PBA boys are very well-behaved, and we tell them their behavior is as important as their singing. There are lots of good singers and good groups, but nobody wants to invite back somebody that was a pain to work with. With their musical, educational, and cultural experiences at PBA, we hope we are educating confident, engaged, and creative leaders of the future.
If you go:
Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony in performances of Brahms’s Symphony No. 2, Allegri’s Miserere, and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 featuring the SFS debut of Rudolf Buchbinder, October 27–30 at Davies Symphony Hall. (415) 864-6000 sfsymphony.org
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201 Van Ness Ave
San Francisco, CA 94102
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