The Phoenix Boys Choir is a travel agent. Not the kind that books you into that special hotel, but the kind that takes you places without you ever having to leave your seat in the theater.
The venerable Valley institution will take its audience to Manhattan Sunday, April 23, with “New York State of Mind” at the Orpheum Theatre.
“People enjoy hearing songs about places, and New York is rich in songs, from both Broadway and pop,” says Georg Stangelberger, in his 17th season as artistic director of the 70-year-old group. Stangelberger came to Phoenix following a stint as deputy artistic director of the globe’s best-known boys ensemble, the Vienna Boys Choir.
The Billy Joel song that lends the concert its title will be featured, along with other New York-themed songs, such as “New York, New York,” made famous by Frank Sinatra, and Duke Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train.”
Unsurprisingly, Broadway will hold down he majority of the program for the group’s annual spring pops concert.
“We’re doing songs from Phantom of the Opera, Cats, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, The Sound of Music, and even a song from Hamilton,” Stangelberger says.
The latter was included by popular demand.
“I had to put it in,” Stangelberger explains. “When I mentioned the show to the boys, they started rapping it at me!”
The Austrian-born conductor calls the musical style of the Broadway sensation that is Hamilton “measured rap,” and says it is perfectly adaptable to the more lyric approach of the youth choir.
The Phoenix Boys Choir was founded in 1947 in the tradition of the great boy choirs of the world. Currently, 125 boys between the ages of 7 and 14 participate in four levels of choral groups: Training, cadet, town and tour choirs, with the latter group, traveling nationally and internationally as musical ambassadors for Arizona.
Its members come from almost every central Arizona community, from Apache Junction to Maricopa to Sedona, and hail from a range of ethnic groups and economic backgrounds. About 25 percent of them receive financial aid for their tuition and tour expenses. The group’s performances reach more than 100,000 concert-goers a year, not including such special appearances at Alice Cooper’s Christmas Pudding and the national anthems it has sung for every major Phoenix sports team.
Funding such an enterprise is not a piece of cake, however, and each spring, in addition to the pops concert, there’s a major fundraiser. This year’s takes place April 8 at the home of architect David E. Dodge at Taliesin West. A $200 ticket covers an elegant meal as well as a performance by the Boys Choir in a setting with “incredible views,” Stangelberger says.
But April, busy as it is, does not end the season for Stangelberger and the boys. From New York, they start packing for China. Not virtual China—the real thing.
Every year, the tour choir goes on a summer tour. The route can be anything from the East Coast of the United States to various places in Europe. For only the second time in the choir’s history, the 2017 summer tour will be of Asia’s largest country.
The names of the cities on the tour choir’s itinerary read like music themselves. In alphabetical order, they are: Anhui, Beijing, Dalian, Changzhou, Changsha, Changshu, Chongqing, Fujian, Hefei, Huai’an, Hunan, Jiangsu, Kunshan, Liaoning, Lishui, Maamshan, Nanjing, Ningbo, Qingdao, Shandong, Shanghai, Shenyang, Taizhou, Weifang, Wenzhou, Xiamen, Yantai, Yixing, Zhangjiagang, Zhejiang and Zhoushan.
Of course, those names have been transliterated. The language barrier, which in Italy or Mexico or France is minimal, will be a big deal in China, Stangelberger admits. He has learned to say some key words in Mandarin, such as hello and farewell, but freely admits: “I have to rely mostly on Google translate.”
Wherever they go and however they get there, the Phoenix Boys Choir continues to be one of the Valley’s most universally esteemed performing arts organizations. The fall will mark the 70th anniversary of the group’s founding. Plans are afoot to take the choir—and audiences—to places not yet thought of.
Phoenix Boys Choir: “New York State of Mind,” Orpheum Theatre, 203 W. Adams Street, Phoenix, 602.264.5328, boyschoir.org; 3 p.m. Sunday, April 23, $15 and $20.