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Nearly 80-year-old American Boychoir, for boys grades 4-8, stops for concert in St. Louis

The American Boychoir, pictured, will perform in St. Louis on Oct. 28, 2016.
American Boychoir
The American Boychoir, pictured, will perform in St. Louis on Oct. 28, 2016.

The renowned American Boychoir is composed of 40 some odd boys in grades fourth through eighth from across the country. Tonight, the choir makes a tour stop in St. Louis at the Cathedral Basilica, as part of the St. Louis Cathedral Concerts series.

The choir seeks to continue the 1,000-year-old tradition of boy choirs — and it has done so with much prestige: the choir has been invited to sing for every sitting U.S. President since John F. Kennedy.

The choir’s artistic director Fernando Malvar-Ruis and choir member Kei Sakano joined St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh to discuss the choir and its performance at the Cathedral Basilica on Friday.

“This was created as a response to the Vienna Boys Choir,” Malvar-Ruis. “It started in 1937 as the Columbus Boys Choir. We are celebrating 80 years next year.”

Fernando Malvar-Ruis is the artistic director of the American Boys Choir.
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Fernando Malvar-Ruis is the artistic director of the American Boys Choir.

There are 23 boys in the traveling choir and a total of 35 boys in the American Boy Choir school, a rigorous scholastic program in Princeton, New Jersey.

“The mission of the school is not the choir, the choir is the means to the end,” Malvar-Ruis said. “The end is to build the boys’ character and to give them an education they couldn’t get anywhere else in the world. So, the boys who attend the school do regular academics and, on top of that, they have two hours of rehearsal every day. We also give about 100 performances on the road every year.”

One of those trips this year will be to China, said Sakano, who joined the choir because of his brother’s involvement in the program.

“One time after a concert, when I was in third grade, my mom told me to go up to audition,” Sakano said.

It should be noted that boys interested in the choir can go up after the concert tonight to try out, Malvar-Ruis said. It is an informal audition, with boys echoing notes the artistic director plays on a piano.

Kei Sakado is one of the performers in American Boyschoir.
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Kei Sakado is one of the performers in American Boyschoir.

The choir has shifted from years past when boys would be asked to leave the choir when their voice changed. Now, the choir incorporates several different voice types in its repertoire — not just sopranos anymore. Part of this has to do with the fact that boys’ voices are changing earlier and earlier, Malvar-Ruis said.

“The paradigm has shifted: for the first 40 years of our existence, you’d be excused from the choir when your voice started to change,” Malvar-Ruis said. “What a horrible message to send to a boy: if we really are about education and building character, we cannot tell a boy ‘you are not useful anymore.’”

That’s offered new, and exciting, challenges for the choir.

“I never know what kind of choir I will have,” Malvar-Ruis said. “Even after a break, some boys will already have changed and some will be about to change. On the other hand, the palate of vocal colors I have is huge. You have some wonderful teenage changed-voice sounds, which is different from an adult male.”  

Related Event

What: St. Louis Cathedral Concerts Presents the American Boychoir
When: Friday, October 28 at 8:00 p.m.
Where: Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, 4431 Lindell Boulevard, St. Louis, MO 63108
More information.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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