Conductor Kerem Sezen said it's important to include both old and new.
"Times change, and also the audience changes," Sezen said. "So in 1750, when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was living, he was the Michael Jackson or Eminem of his time, (and we sang his music). Now we have 250 more years of musical history, and when you want to get a younger audience, you must change something."
The group Sezen conducts is the Vienna Boys Choir, which was formed by royal decree in 1498 to provide music during church services.
Sezen will lead the choir in a concert Wednesday, Dec. 12, at Shippensburg University. The concert is sold out, but the choir will also perform two other concerts in the region (see If You Go box).
For more than four centuries, the boys provided music for the royal family of Austria-Hungary. When that nation collapsed following World War I, the boys choir was spun off as a private, nonprofit entity. It began touring outside Austria, and for the past century, the choir has developed a reputation as one of the best choirs in the world.
The Vienna Boys Choir has 100 total members, but the full choir is divided into four 25-member ensembles named after Austrian composers Anton Bruckner, Joseph Haydn, Franz Schubert and Mozart. Sezen leads the Haydn ensemble.
Sezen said he uses a three-sided approach to design concert programs.
"One part is for the audience in the particular country where we're touring. One side of the triangle is what the kids enjoy singing," he said. "And the third part is my own interest — what I enjoy and also the interests of my boss — what the kids are ‘supposed' to sing."
Sezen, born in Turkey in 1978, has been choirmaster for the Vienna Boys Choir for a decade. Carrying on the high reputation of the Vienna Boys Choir is a joy and a chore, he said.
"For my part, I am challenged to put the musical standard on a very high level, because that's what the audience expects," he said. "One the other hand, everyone who has a child knows you have to take care of them. You have to teach them in a way that they learn it."
Choir members are age 9 to 14 or so, and all sing soprano and alto. The choir is always auditioning, Sezen said, because the choir needs to add about 25 boys every year to replace the 25 boys whose voices change. Most boys are Austrian, but there are members from all over the world.
"They audition when they're in elementary school, at the age of 9," he said. "While we are touring, we also audition in different countries, where the kids come and audition after a performance."
Auditions are low key, Sezen said. He is not looking for child prodigies, but for solid potential and good social skills.
"The expectations is not too high during auditions. We ask the boy to bring a song. He sings that song. Then we look for the range — how high, how low. We do some rhythm determination. We ask the boy whether he had some training before, voice lessons," Sezen said. "We try to look at how far can he grow. Can he adopt to the situation we have in Vienna, and also to the social background in a boys choir?"
It's a challenge to bring together two dozen boys of differing skills and levels of experience and produce clear, beautiful music, but Sezen said he likes the challenge.
"It is the most difficult instrument you can work with," he said. "It's not like a piano where you push a button and there is a sound. It's 24, 25 young, sometimes inexperienced individuals. You put them together so they enjoy themselves and also do what you want them to do."
All choir members live in Vienna, where they go to a boarding school and perform with the choir. They attend academic classes in the morning, then attend choir lessons. After lunch, they have more classes.
Always, Sezen said, the Vienna Boys Choir conductors try to build a boy's skill while they have a chance.