The Vienna Boys' Choir took Altenmarkt by storm ... powerful voices, well-mannered, keen travellers …

When Maximilian I moved his court music to Vienna in 1498 and ordered that there should be six singing boys among the musicians, he would probably never have dreamed that 500 years later this ensemble would become an institution with 100 choirboys and four travelling choirs. ...

... Haydn Choir, Mozart Choir, Schubert Choir and Bruckner Choir - and the Bruckner Choir, which has already thrilled its fans in all European countries, Asia, Australia, South and Central America, the USA and Canada, made a stop in Altenmarkt. This is not a matter of course, but a major coup by the new head of tourism in Altenmarkt-Zauchensee, Clemens Konrad. "And they were happy to come," Konrad confirmed to me shortly before the concert began and announced that they would be back in Altenmarkt at the same time on 28th November 2024 to ring in the Advent season with their rousing concert.

I had the privilege of attending this year's Advent concert by the Vienna Boys' Choir in the Altenmarkt Parish Church in front of almost 900 visitors. The entrance of the 23 boys aged between nine and fourteen - they come from Vienna, Carinthia, Lower Austria, Burgenland, China, Germany, Japan, Romania, South Korea and the Ukraine - with their spirited conductor Manolo Cagnin from Italy was already a glorious and touching experience. And as they marched past me, I, originally from Hamburg, wondered why are these guys performing in a sailor look? Of course, I asked immediately and learnt that this outfit has been the official choir dress since 1924.

Why? At the beginning of the 20th century, it was common for middle-class families to dress their children in sailor suits. The blue uniform is worn by Viennese choirboys when travelling, at official press events and performances in sacred locations. The white, particularly festive sailor suit, the gala uniform, is reserved for evening performances in concert halls with a classical programme.

Their programme in the atmospheric Altenmarkt Parish Church began classically with the Little Night Music, which we only know instrumentally, sung by the choirboys. What a feast for the ears ... and then it went on in quick succession with a vocally powerful firework display from Ave Maria and the Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka to the Elf King and the New Zealand whaler shanty "Wellerman". Again and again, the boys shone with their solos, their mischief and charm, with piano accompaniment, violin, trumpet, guitar and drums. My attention was always drawn to the likeable and spirited conductor Manolo Cagnin, who is often seen on the football pitch with "his" choirboys. He inspired and captivated the audience.

In 2008, Cagnin became conductor of the Bruckner Choir. A cappella singing is very important to him, as is communicating with the audience. "Music is a gift: as musicians, we are obliged to share something of it with our audience. Especially in the times we are living through and in which many children are not allowed to sing," he said. On behalf of all the people who are not as fortunate as us at the moment, he sang a Ukrainian song with the choir, which also formed the transition to the classic Christmas programme.

Enjoying typical Austrian Christmas carols sung by the Vienna Boys' Choir, the oldest boys' choir in the world, is a real magical experience. Coupled with the cheerfulness that radiates from each one of them, the visitors experienced a concert in a class of its own.

At the end, there were standing ovations and encores that the audience could sing along to. The devotional yodel sung together touched more than just me ...

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In addition to the concert by the Vienna Boys' Choir, there are other highlights to discover during Advent in Altenmarkt-Zauchensee. Visit the Advent.market in Altenmarkt and the Mountain Lake.Advent in Zauchensee, take part in the guided "Räucher.Kraft" feel-good walk or experience traditional Advent singing in the Festival Hall. Another concert highlight awaits you at the beginning of January with "The Golden Voices of Gospel" live in the Altenmarkt Festival Hall.

Tickets for the Vienna Boys' Choir concert in November 2024 can be purchased here.

Bildnachweis: Matthias Fritzenwallner