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Inside the Music

"Air Ooo Bear": Reflections from the Minnesota Boychoir

The Minnesota Boychoir and Angelica Cantanti Youth Choirs perform Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand | Photo by Greg Helgeson

The title of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand is somewhat of a hyperbole—there aren’t literally a thousand musicians onstage, but it can appear that way; after all, the symphony, Mahler’s Eighth, requires four choirs and an expanded orchestra behind eight vocal soloists and a conductor.

Presented in June 2022, the Minnesota Orchestra’s concerts involved many Twin Cities-area vocalists, including an adult double choir and a children’s choir comprising singers from Angelica Cantanti Youth Choirs and the Minnesota Boychoir. The students of these choirs, ranging in age from 8 to 14 years old, prepared and performed extremely difficult music sung in both German and Latin and with some added pressures: these concerts would not only be conducted by the beloved Osmo Vänskä in his last concerts as music director, but would be performed for sold-out audiences saying their farewells to the Maestro and recorded as part of Vänskä's years-long project to release all ten of Mahler’s famed symphonies. But the young singers accomplished this task and performed beautifully (audiences can watch the full performance of Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand through the end of November on our Digital Concert Hall).

The singers of the Minnesota Boychoir return to Orchestra Hall from November 10 to 12 for performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 under Vänskä’s direction once again in his new capacity as conductor laureate; they’ll also record the work, marking the Orchestra and Vänskä’s completion of the Mahler recording project they embarked on six years ago. We asked a few of these young singers for their honest reflections on participating in Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand as well as what they’re looking forward to in returning to complete the Mahler cycle.

Performing Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, I felt the most musical amazement in my life. It was the closest thing I could imagine to performing professionally. I would like to share my side of the tale and shine some light on the experience.

First, I have never had to read, speak or sing in German or Latin. Singing in a foreign language was a completely new thing on my end, and I enjoyed it profoundly. Even I was surprised at our ability to do it. Speaking of being surprised, I was amazed to see someone I knew in the Minnesota Orchestra: Helen Chang Haertzen! She is a violinist and a friend of my violin/viola teacher. I was glad to know I had connections in the choir and the Orchestra!

Mahler’s Eighth Symphony isn't called “Symphony of a Thousand” for no reason. There were so many performers we couldn't all fit backstage. All the choirs warmed up at Westminster Presbyterian Church, just behind the hall. Before the concert, we would walk in quite a big line over to Orchestra Hall. It was honestly pretty hilarious!  I look forward to seeing Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra for one last Mahler symphony. Osmo is a great conductor; it's sad to see him leave the Minnesota Orchestra, but I’m glad to be able to perform with him one last time.

Frederick J. Thomann, age 13

Mahler's Eighth at first looked like a big sloppy mess. It took our choir at least two weeks to get comfortable with one page of music because of all the tritones, not to mention the Latin and German. Learning new languages for songs has never been that hard for our choir; we just write down in our scores syllable by syllable what it sounds like. For instance, when we sang “er über” we wrote down “air ooo bear.”

At first, with the Orchestra, you could say we were being shy. And I believe we were shy throughout all the performances and rehearsals, but it definitely got better over time.

Mahler was also completely draining. After practices, we got home at ten o’clock and then woke up at six in the morning for school. And then right after school, we’d head straight back to Orchestra Hall. I feel bad for my parents having to drive that much. But in the end Mahler sounded amazing and it felt extremely good, even though being in the front row meant sitting all the way straight for two hours. It was torture.

Even though there were ups and downs about Mahler, it was extremely rewarding. One of the best things about it was I got to perform at Orchestra Hall with the Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä. But randomly confusing my friends by speaking German and Latin was also awesome.

Overall, Mahler was extremely enjoyable, fun, cool, hard, annoying, rewarding and an awesome once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Whitsun Piper, age 12

I got to learn a new language, I met a new person from a different choir, and I liked singing at Orchestra Hall. I also liked learning about Latin and German. We learned a lot of new things in the music that I didn't know, like tritones. It was so nice. It was powerful; the choir and Orchestra were beautiful. I liked how pretty the cubes looked with the colors. It was nice being under the baton of Osmo Vänskä.

Kai Swanson, age 10

Singing in Latin and German was not easy to say the least. At first I thought, “Oh this won’t be too bad.” Little did I know that we hadn’t even touched half of the piece and we were going half tempo. However, the words did become very easy at some point, the only hard part being keeping count and singing loud enough.

All of the prep time for the performance was probably the hardest part. A couple days ago I heard our choir director Mr. J [Minnesota Boychoir Artistic Director Mark Johnson] say that we spent 26 hours on Mahler. The rehearsals were long, but it was time to be with my friends and work on my singing.

Singing Mahler with the Minnesota Orchestra was amazing. I had never actually seen the Orchestra perform before, so it was cool for my first time ever seeing the Orchestra I was right behind them, performing on the same stage

I know that the Mahler’s Third performance will be easier. I expect that we’re still going to be doing quite a bit of practice for it, but I’m guessing that singing “bimm” and “bamm” and the slightest bit of German will be easier.

All in all, I think that being a part of the Mahler’s Eighth performance was a very positive experience, and I’m very much looking forward to performing Mahler's Third.

Morrow Piper, age 13