Viennese charm and international flair

If you ever get an invite to a Viennese ball hosted by the city’s 500-year-old choristers, take it. For the second year running, the world-renowned Vienna Boys’ Choir Ball will sing their ode to the city and beyond during its extravagant ball season. Championing Brazil as its cultural partner this year, ‘Ballmutter’ and MuTh director Elke Hesse says that there is plenty to celebrate on 27 January.

The Ball der Wiener Sängerknaben, the Ball of the Vienna Boys’ Choir, is the latest addition to the city’s packed ball season calendar. A very Viennese trend and surely testament to the city’s glamorous nature, the esteemed Kursalon Hübner will once again host this emerging Viennese talent – 100 of them to be specific – who will give the opening performance and more recitals throughout the evening.

“We’re expecting a hugely diverse audience,” explains Hesse from her office in the architecturally striking MuTh concert venue, the choir’s permanent home in Vienna. “Like last year, there will be many ambassadors present as well as tourists interested in the Boys’ Choir, and, of course, parents of the graduating students, the ‘debutants’; those teenagers who are completing their final year at the choir’s boarding school.”

Photo: © Barbara Hartl

For the past five years, Hesse’s attention focused on the recently opened MuTh concert hall. Although with her 12-year-old son in the choir and her key position on the choir’s board, she is never far away from the choral scene. “I was approached last year to become the ‘Ballmutter’, and take charge of organising this brand new event.” She pauses: “I gave a lot of thought to how we could proceed and what approach would make it a really special occasion.”

Eager to shake off the notion of the Vienna ball season being an older generation-only concept, Hesse originally ran her idea by the Austrian Ministry for the Exterior (BMEIA) for a more outward-looking ball. “The choir is often dubbed the ‘singing ambassadors’, so I hoped this was a concept we could build on together.” Each year the ministry hones in on one particular country for a cultural focus, with Bosnia and Herzegovina taking centre stage in 2016 and 2017 paying heed to Brazil. Duly eschewing a traditional waltz-based event, the inaugural Ball of the Vienna Boys’ Choir featured upbeat Balkan music and the first edition left an indelible mark on the Austrian capital, upholding the 500-year-old choir’s reputation and leaving guests wholly satisfied.

“Right now the preparations for 2017 are going very well,” Hesse smiles. “We get a lot of support and financial assistance from sponsors, as entry fees along won’t cover much. There’s a definitely a sense of excitement and nervous anticipation, but I’m adopting a more chilled-out Brazilian mentality!”

Taking more than just attitude cues from Brazil is the pressure on for guests to perfect the South American moves? “Of course there’ll be lots of dancing, and not just your typical Waltzes and polka but also samba and Bossa Nova. Before the ball begins we’ve got Brazilian dancers hosting a one-hour crash course so you can pick up the moves!” Her excitement is contagious; and it has clearly captured the passion of the well-travelled young choirboys – her son included. “One choir leader actually comes from Brazil, so that’s a huge bonus. All four of our choirs will be performing traditional Viennese songs and Brazilian ones on the night.”

Photo: © Barbara Hartl

Despite its lengthy 500-year history and international acclaim, the ‘singing ambassadors’ had no fixed performance space until 2012, which is when Hesse’s role at MuTh became so pivotal. The former festival director took the reins before the impeccably designed concert hall was even built, and has been unsettling audiences at MuTh ever since. Standing for Musik & Theatre as well as the German word ‘Mut’, meaning courage, the acoustically superb concert hall and café resembles an upmarket contemporary art gallery from the outside. “We hold around 250 performances each year, with around 30 per cent given by the choir,” she gestures at the frequently sold-out 400-plus seats in the venue.

When she was first approached, she was eager to bring a new concept to the table: “I always knew that I wanted the concert hall to have a very open outlook.” Alongside architects Johannes Kraus and Michael Lawugger, the privately funded concert hall therefore embraced a forward-thinking approach to its design, reflecting the choir’s same youth-focused model. After taking a decade to complete, Hesse is satisfied: “It’s a very special venue and the choristers finally have the chance to present themselves regularly on their own stage in Vienna.”

A quick scan of the capital’s events calendar shows it is hard to find a venue offering such bold diversity and excitement throughout the year than MuTh. Given the storming success of the choir’s inaugural ball too, Hesse has found her calling in creating and maintaining an engaging and above all competitive calendar of music and theatre to rival Vienna’s more staple venues.

TEXT: EMMIE COLLINGE

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