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A busy month for young voices

Winter break? Not for Philadelphia Boys Choir.

Philadelphia Boys Choir director Jeff Smith takes questions from his young charges after a rehearsal at the Academy of Music. (Elizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer)
Philadelphia Boys Choir director Jeff Smith takes questions from his young charges after a rehearsal at the Academy of Music. (Elizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer)Read more

For the sixth and final time on this early-December Saturday, the boys in the red blazers and white pants are summoned to line up. It is almost 8 p.m.

Down a flight of steps they traipse - shhh! - and through a stage door, past two Snowflakes sitting on the floor adjusting foot tapes in hazy backstage light, past the imposing, furry Mouse King, Andre Vytoptov, standing in the wings - double take! - then into the proscenium box where they take their places, practically atop the oboe player in the Academy of Music orchestra pit.

Six rows of six boys, sopranos to one side, altos to the other. On stage, mice are battling toy soldiers.

His boys safely in place, choir director Jeff Smith pivots out the door, runs down the corridor, and enters the packed auditorium at the back, where he stands against the wall to listen.

Less then 10 minutes later, he is off again, running to retrieve members of his Philadelphia Boys Choir, which has just completed a 10-hour day that included a dress rehearsal with Peter Nero and the Philly Pops, an afternoon Pops concert, and not one but two performances of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker with the Pennsylvania Ballet (the choir sings during "Waltz of the Snowflakes").

Out on Locust Street beside the Academy, the mothers and fathers wait in a waltz of the minivans.

For the choir, a Philadelphia institution both august and only intermittently loopy - a "forgot my blazer," "my voice cracked," "got to throw up," "the entrance was sloppy," "don't listen to the dancers' feet" kind of loopy - this is just the beginning.

A busy December

"They're everywhere," Philly Pops oboe player Dave Schneider had observed earlier that day, watching choir carpools complete their drop-offs at the Kimmel Center's 15th Street back door before the 10:30 a.m. dress rehearsal. "They're like Ed Rendell."

And so they are, 73 in all, the current performing contingent of this 42-year-old cultural throwback, which sings for presidents and Phillies home openers and graduates its members when their voices deepen. This morning, some already are in uniform; others carry garment bags along with bag lunches and Sony PSPs.

Their December looms as stupendously busy - a schedule that would challenge a professional, let alone a bunch of middle schoolers. The month will feature 10 Pops concerts, two dozen Nutcrackers, three of their own concerts, a smattering of rehearsals, and an appearance on Good Morning America on Friday.

The boys, who range in age from about 10 to about 14, come from city and suburbs. All must pass a 15-minute audition, and most begin as even younger "cadets," who in time earn the prestigious blazers of performing members. Their reach is formidable; earlier this year, the choir went to China.

To direct this prepubescent army, Smith has divided them first in half - Pops 1 and Pops 2 - then in thirds: Nutcracker Red, White, and Blue. Nutcracker White itself is divided, for purposes of providing Pops balance. Mothers like Sharon DeMuro of Sicklerville hit the computer to come up with a driving schedule that fills 19 of 31 boxes for December.

Some boys have their schedules memorized. Some don't seem to know or care whether they're doing Nutcracker, Pops, or both. A few wind up in the wrong group until Smith notices and repositions. "You've got boys going in different directions all month," says mother Lori Kappel, dropping off four boys. "We keep them laughing, keep them fed."

Smith must do his own juggling act: He serves as keyboardist for the Pops, assistant conductor to Nero, plus choir traffic cop, morale booster, babysitter, high-standard enforcer. He's part maestro, part Pied Piper, part Little League coach.

"You have to throw up? Go throw up," he tells one boy moments before a Pops performance. The boy leaves the room, obliges, makes it back only a little shakier for wear. Hallelujah!

Actually, "Hallelujah Chorus." "No trills or upper notes on that," Smith warns the boys. And there are none.

Best behavior

"You may or may not get a cue to stand on the first song," Smith is saying at 10:28 a.m., before leading the boys in the first of eight comically noisy trips up and down the red metal back steps to the "choir pews" - rows of Conductor's Circle seats high above the Verizon Hall stage, facing the conductor. "At the end of the song, Peter may or may not give you a cue to bow."

For the audience sing-along, he tells the boys to keep their binders flat on their laps so the audience won't have to think about whether the boys know the words to "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Blazers must stay buttoned. When another member of the Pops singing contingent, the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas Gospel Choir, performs, "don't get up and break a move. You can clap if you want to clap. If you don't get the urge to clap, don't clap."

"Most importantly, look like you're having a good time. Even if you're not, you must pretend," he says. "OK, Pops, let's go."

The other half of the boys wait out the rehearsal down in the 11th row, providing an oddly transfixed audience for soloist Rachel York as she coos a flirtatious "Santa Baby" in their direction, never mind that she's very pregnant. The boys' eyes widen.

Standing ovation

When the rehearsal, attended by the whole choir, ends at 1:30 p.m., the army regroups in regiments: Red/Pops 1 stays put for the 3 p.m. Pops performance, then will be dismissed until the next day's Nutcracker matinee.

White/Pops 2 is not due back until the evening Nutcracker. Blue/Pops 2 must lunch quickly, then at 1:45 p.m. head out under the direction of two choir fathers - Jeff Millstein and Jim Larsen - for the Academy of Music, a block and a half up Broad Street. Joined by nine choir cadets, they will take their places near the Snowflakes just minutes before the Pops 1 group stands for the first ethereal notes of "Silent Night" back at Verizon Hall.

White/Pops 1 has hit the jackpot. These two dozen boys are performing in the afternoon Pops performance and the evening Nutcracker.

At 3:13, all the Pops 1 boys are in place, having passed murmuring members of the St. Thomas Gospel Choir ("Handsome!") to get to their seats.

When it's time for "I'll Be There," a showstopper featuring the duo of Nathan Butler of Shamong and Aaron Houston of Olney, both 14-year-olds are battling nerves. The sight of the all-but-full house must be stunning - though in truth they barely lift their eyes as they walk onstage. The singing is delicate, the voices, evoking the young Michael Jackson of the original, will linger in listeners' ears. They receive a standing ovation.

After, they are flushed and a bit overwhelmed. "We just got a standing ovation in the Kimmel," Butler says. "I think I cried."

It's 5:35 p.m., and he's done for the day. Still dazed, he meets his father out back and they walk a few blocks to their car, deep in the telling. People who have just left Verizon Hall spot him and call out, "Nice job!" It is a sweet moment in the city.

The choir has been performing with Nutcracker for three decades but joined the Pops show only two years ago. Nero says he especially appreciates the boys' voices on "Christmas Lullaby."

"I always felt the audience reaction was not up to what the song was," he says. "It hit me - this is a lullaby. Let's have the children singing."

Their participation also subjects Nero to cheeky choir members like Kevin Wong of Bala Cynwyd, who sidles up to him and asks, "How many years ago was that photo outside of you taken?"

Serenading passersby

Post-concert at Verizon Hall, the 11 White/Pops 1 boys are moving on to a hoagie dinner provided by choir mother Julie Gray of Doylestown, whose husband, Nick, has managed to both train for a marathon and catch up on work during the downtime of the choir's day.

Several boys are crooning their own versions of the "I'll Be There" solo into their BlackBerries. The group's self-critiques over which Smith presides during breaks - "Someone put their hands behind their heads," "A lot of people were stretching between songs," "There were sloppy entrances" - are done. The giddiness factor is increasing.

At 6:43 p.m., White/Pops 1 heads out to 15th Street and promptly turns south. "Wrong way, boys," Smith says.

In the chilly dark, he and his singers march north, easily bantering back and forth. In an hour they will take their walk past the Snowflakes and the Mouse King; now, they are their own blizzard in the kingdom of their imaginations. They are fed, and they are laughing.

"I haven't seen them like this in a while," Smith says, smiling. "When they're tired, they act drunk. Or it may just be this particular group."

The boys do what comes naturally and begin to sing. They sing Michael Jackson, "Christmas Lullaby," whatever pops into their heads. They bounce along. It is an exhilarating sight and sound.

Their voices carry as they round the corner onto Locust Street. People waiting at the light turn to look at this serendipitous pack of red-blazered carolers.

The boys are mostly oblivious. Not Smith - he is enchanted. "They're serenading passersby," he says, glancing back at the sidewalk scene the boys have transformed. It is perhaps their most fetching performance of the day.

Then they are through the side door, headed, for neither the first nor the last time this month, to serenade a bunch of Snowflakes.

Follow the choir through one of its hectic, exhausting days at