To a packed house and rapturous applause, the Escolania – the boys’ choir from the Benedictine Abbey of Montserrat in Catalonia – gave a glorious concert yesterday afternoon at the Music Center at Strathmore here in the DC area, as the final stop on their first tour of the United States. In a two-part program the choristers, whose group was founded at the Abbey over 800 years ago, led by Choirmaster Bernat Vivancos, performed music composed in honor of Our Lady of Montserrat over the past several centuries, followed by a selection of popular Catalan folk songs. While the setting may have been secular, the combination of sacred and traditional song, on a gray day threatening with snow, clearly touched the hearts and souls of the audience, leading to multiple standing ovations and much cheering.
In attendance were His Excellency the Spanish Ambassador to the United States, Ramón Gil-Casares; the widow of legendary Catalan cellist and composer Pau (Pablo) Casals, Marta Casals Istomin; several representatives from the Catalan government; and monks from Montserrat Abbey. Fortunately for those not familiar with the music, some of which was in Latin and some of which was in Catalan, the program provided thorough translations for the audience. However it was the music itself, and the vocal dexterity of the singers, which seemed to make a profound impression even on those who did not understand the words that the boys were singing.
In an unusual arrangement that was bookended at the conclusion of the program, Choirmaster Vivancos began the concert with the 50 choir boys lined up in a single, C-shaped row, wrapping around the three back walls of the stage. Intoning Gregorian chant, they set a prayerful and contemplative mood for the audience. Not only did this produce a remarkable acoustic effect, enveloping the audience in sound, but it previewed the fact that this was not simply going to be watching a group of singers standing motionless on risers. For each piece, there was a shift in the arrangement of the choristers, depending on the auditory effect which Sr. Vivancos was trying to achieve; at one point for example, four of the boys went up into the balcony overlooking the stage, to sing in responsory with the bulk of the choir down below.
Similarly, in pieces which contained a solo or duet, the singer or singers in question would be brought to the front of the stage, perform their part of the piece, and then return to their brethren in the choir. Perhaps one of the most charming aspects of this was at the conclusion of each composition, when the lad(s) in question would be directed to step to the front and take a bow: they did so smiling widely from gratitude but at the same time charmingly blushing from embarrassment. It was touching to see how they would look over periodically to Sr. Vivancos as they took their bows, making sure that he was pleased, but one also suspects wondering if they could get the signal to go back to their friends and stop being the center of attention.
While the first half of the program contained sacred music in a wealth of different styles from the 13th through the 20th centuries, all originally composed for the Escolania, the second half consisted of a number of folk songs from Catalonia, some of which were given very unusual arrangements. The popular “Muntanyes de Canigó” for example, which was performed with an undercurrent of dirge-like humming, on the surface seems to be a longing for a visit to the mountains and sorrow over the death of a nightingale. Yet the tune is in fact an allegory of how these mountains were ceded to France in the 17th century, after the Catalans unsuccessfully tried to regain their independence; the buzzing sound beneath the singing seemed to recognize this stirring. This was followed by a folk tune with a similar theme, “El Rossinyol”, which is in fact a pun on the fact that the word means “nightingale” in Catalan, but was also the name given to this lost part of Catalonia.
Another unusual touch was the performance of the medieval carol “El Cant dels Ocells” or “Song of the Birds”, which has become associated over time with Catalans who went into exile after the Spanish Civil War. Pau Casals, who composed and arranged many pieces for the Escolania during his long career, would often end his own performances with this piece. At yesterday’s performance, the smallest choirboy singing a lovely high soprano down front, and his brother choristers arranged around the three sides of the back stage, were periodically joined by the sound of chirping bird flutes that would bounce back and forth and echo into the audience. It gave a real sense of songbirds in flight, and an unexpected contrast to the mournful, but powerful melody of the carol.
Before the intermission, as the Escolania was heading offstage for their break, an elderly Catalan lady in the audience stood up and called out, in mixed Catalan and English, “Rosa d’Abril [Rose of April]! Please!” These are the first words of the “Virolai”, the 19th century hymn to Our Lady of Montserrat, recalling that her Feast Day falls on April 26th. Thr hymn encouraged Catalans both religious and secular to hold on to hope, and became even more popular during the Franco regime, when Catalan language and culture was almost universally banned in a – fortunately unsuccessful – push to stamp it out. Sr. Vivancos did not disappoint, and the final encore involved the Escolania singing this beautiful piece while the audience was on its feet, with the Catalans in the audience singing along, just as occurs when it is performed at the Abbey of Montserrat.
It was a real privilege for this scrivener to be able to attend the concert, particularly since I have not been able to get back to Barcelona for a couple of years now. I offer my sincere thanks to the Delegation of the Catalan Government to the United States for inviting me to participate. Yet most of all, my thanks to the Escolania, Bernat Vivancos, and the monks at the Abbey of Montserrat, for bringing some of the sounds of Catalonia here to America, and in such a magnificent way.