Interview with Oliver Stech, Choir master of the Vienna Boys Choir

19. 07. 2021

1. The Vienna Boys’ Choir was founded during the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I in the 15th century. How does it feel to be part of the rich history of this choir?

First of all, I feel honoured as well as humbled. It is amazing to think that we get to sing in a space where Maximilian went to pray, where Maria Theresia would have been sitting, where they may have made important political and historic decisions. And to know that in that chapel a whole host of incredibly famous musicians performed as part of the Imperial Court; Haydn and Schubert sang there as boys, and composers like Heinrich Isaac, Philippe de Monte, Johann Joseph Fux, Antonio Caldara, Salieri, Bruckner – they were all part of it. It is a privilege to carry on such a tradition, as if their DNA is there.

2. You have been choirmaster since 2011. What do your duties actually entail?

Mostly to teach the boys the music and what it means. I select the repertoire in collaboration with our artistic director, Professor Wirth, and we select it to suit the occasion. When we are performing Mass at the Imperial Chapel, the repertoire is part of our long tradition – we sing masses from the 1500s to contemporary settings of the mass ordinary. The focus there is on Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, and Bruckner, as well as on a composer like Jacobus Gallus, who came from Ribnica.
When we are preparing for a tour, I select a broad range of repertoire on a theme. For the Ljubljana Festival, I chose pieces to suit midsummer – the programme is called “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. We want to enchant the audience.
I am always looking for pieces to suit the boys’ voices. In this programme, there is a piece with an exposed solo – as if it was written for the boy who sings it.

3. How does your role today differ from that of a choirmaster in, say, the 19th century?

Probably not very much – it is about inspiring the boys, giving them the tools to appreciate, to enjoy, to make music and share it with others. I’d guess the biggest difference lies in the repertoire. Although a choirmaster in the 19th century would probably have done more contemporary music – the pop music of the day – than we do today. Nowadays, we perform classical music from the Middle Ages to modern contemporary, music from the Renaissance, the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods; and also arrangements of world music, folk, pop, jazz, and sometimes even rock.

4. What are the advantages of working with young singers compared to an adult choir?

Young singers are very happy to learn – anything new, really. They want to grow and they have no preconceptions, and they actually like to rise to a challenge – if you tell them a piece is difficult, they will want to do it, and well. They are like sponges – absorbing what you give them.

5. How did you begin your conducting and singing career?

I started singing seriously as a teenager, in my school choir. My music teacher – the conductor – invited me to join her church choir. This was a choir that tackled reasonably difficult pieces. My first major choral work was Bach’s St John Passion, and I was absolutely hooked. I knew then that the choir, choral singing would be my calling. I was fortunate to be able to begin conducting at that time. I went on to study piano, voice and choral conducting at Vienna’s Music University, focussing on pedagogy. This combination enabled me to realise my dream of working with the Vienna Boys Choir, of teaching music, and making music at a professional level.