On “The Big Apple Circus” and “The Vienna Boys Choir”

I don’t anticipate that I will write here exclusively about theatre, film and other performances while away in New York.  I do want to at least touch on two “non-theatre” events from my December trip before I move on.   I did after all give myself a break from my usual theatre obsessiveness by going to Carnegie hall to hear the Vienna Boys Choir Christmas Concert.  And I did reengage in a long-time love with a ringside seat at The Big Apple Circus.  Next time, I want to tackle a gaggle of movies, including some very fine ones that have come out in the past few weeks.

The Vienna Boys Choir’s Christmas Concert
I’ve been intrigued with the sound of a boys’ choir since the ripe old age of 9, when I sang in one at the Landon School, just outside Washington.  We used to do Christmas concerts in the National Gallery, where I would watch audiences, for some reason unknown to me at the time, rapturously listening to us, tears running down their faces.  Later, I took my bride to Vienna, to hear the Wiener Sängerknaben in their own territory.  And still later, on several occasions, we took our kids to hear them on tour.  It was only then, watching my children roll their eyes and ask “Why?” did I realize this experience may not be to everyone’s taste.  Even my childhood choirmaster, with whom I later became friends, said he didn’t particularly care for the “Germanic quality” of the Viennese accent, which didn’t permit the purity of note that a less gutteral American accent could evoke.  Personally, I am not so fussy.  Beauty is beauty, and it astonishes me all the more when it comes out of the mouths of normal hell-raising little boys no matter the language or the accent.  Since they don’t turn down the lights in Carnegie Hall, I was able to survey the Stern Auditorium at will, and I saw the same rapture, and the same tears streaming down cheeks … along with, of course, the same antsy children turning to mom & dad with expressions of  “Can’t we go home now?”    The Choir sang in many languages, yes, occasionally with soft Austrian accents.  But these days the accents vary.  According to the program, about 100 choir boys are selected, from the 300 students who come from all over the world to the school in Vienna to participate in four different touring groups of 25 or so.  Altogether, they give around 300 concerts a year.  This particular group, the Schubertchor, is led by Andy Icochea Icochea, a Peruvian, and his injection into the repertoire of beautiful traditional music from that part of the world, including panpipes and carols, is but a sample of his commitment to world-wide harmony, in every sense of the word.  It was a truly international holiday concert, a display of unimaginable talent, and an afternoon which slowed down my brain waves and left me completely at peace with the world.  Not an easy thing to come by in New York.   In order to make this matinee performance I had to drive to Washington and take an early train.  I’d do it again for these lads.

The Big Apple Circus
Some 20 years ago, I wrote a book, along with my friend and eminent circus historian, LaVahn Hoh.  It is called Step Right Up: The Adventure of Circus in America.  If you like, you can look it up and read it on line (without the pictures), and there are a few illustrated copies left in the used book stores and on Amazon.com.  Already outdated, of course, as is any book on the circus soon after it is written, I am told it nonetheless remains one of the top-rated books on American circus history.  This is thanks to the expertise of its coauthor (the other one), who went on to become for a while the official Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus Historian.  LaVahn continues to teach Circus History at the University of Virginia, one of the few places where such a course can be found.   The writing process revived in me a forgotten love of the circus and its display of what the human body is capable of accomplishing given a little muscle and determination.  It also reminded me of our kinship to other animals, and the relationships we have established with our fellow creatures over the centuries, both good and bad.  I must have seen 25 circuses in the year that we wrote the book, and The Big Apple Circus remains a standout.  Since 1981, it has been setting up in Damrosch Park beside Lincoln Center during the holiday season, where I am always delighted to find its royal blue tent, flecked with gold stars.  The show will close this week (January 9), but will reopen in Boston in April, and be back in Queens in May.  So there are plenty more chances to see it.  It has been too long since I have.  It was a full house on the morning I went, but clearly the economy has taken its toll on the Big Apple, as it has on all circuses.  There are fewer acts, and none so impressive as Katya Schumann’s magnificent horses in the early days, magical moments of poetic ecstasy.  But long-time favorite Barry Lubin is still there in his Grandma persona, bless his heart, and those who caught the PBS special “Circus” in November will recognize the ample talents of Rob Torres, whose clown routines are as good as it gets.  Particularly wonderful was the moment when he earned the trust of a 5-year old audience member, whom he took into his arms and literally flew around the ring just off the ground, suspended by a cable, fulfilling the secret wishes of everyone in the audience who ever wanted to sprout wings and fly.  Also wonderful was an extraordinarily talented juggler from Ethopia, an animal act with dogs, twelve white miniature horses, and goats, would you believe.  I used to cringe at the often cruel animal acts in the old circuses, but these guys were clearly in a mutually rewarding partnership, trained with love, and they were thoroughly enjoying their workout.  There was also an impressive array of athletic climbers, bikers, ropers and contortionists who as always push the barriers of what we think of as human limitations.  The circus is still the circus, and this is one of the best.  There were ample wide grins, oohs, wows, and shrieks of joy to satisfy me and everyone else under the little big top.

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