In one memorable scene from the Christmas movie “The Bishop’s Wife,” Cary Grant leads a group of young ragamuffins through a celestial version of the hymn “O Sing to God,” transforming — and transporting — both the boys and the audience.
There’s something magical about those angelic, prepubescent voices. If you’re looking for a similar holiday fix, Ragazzi Boys Choir celebrates its 25th anniversary with a program titled “Welcome Winter/Winter Solstice.”
Ragazzi, an informal Italian term for “guys,” refers to the vocal part in operas for young male voices. Choir founder Joyce Keil, who served as assistant conductor for the San Francisco Boys Chorus after a career as a high school music teacher, talks about the theme of the concert: “The Bay Area is very diverse. So we are performing music from many cultures with songs that celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Native American culture and more.
“But I also didn’t want to lose the kind of cozy Christmas feeling that people really like,” she says.
In addition to traditional Christmas favorites, the concert will include “Unending Flame,” a rousing Hanukkah tune accompanied by clarinetist Ben Silverman, “Betelehemu” by Babatunde Olatunji with percussion accompaniment, and contemporary pieces such as “Solstice” by Randal Thompson and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Pie Jesu.”
“There’s also a haunting Native American chant that is mixed with the ‘Amazing Grace’ melodies,” Keil says.
The range of genres the youngsters perform reflects their rigorous training. Starting at age 7, they learn basics of music theory including sight reading, part writing, counterpoint and singing.
“Many of our kids go on to pass the high school AP placement exam in music theory,” Keil says. Because their repertoire is drawn from many cultures, they also pick up multiple languages. “The younger ones start Latin but the older ones can sing in any language,” she adds.
One of Keil’s greatest measures of success is the sense of camaraderie the boys experience. “As a high school music teacher, I was always struggling to get boys into my choral music program. Sometimes they would get teased by the girls when their voices changed. But when you just have boys singing together that change is simply a fact they talk about.”
Along with the youngsters and the high school group, the Ragazzi Young Men’s choir, there is a self-sustaining alumni group, Continuo. “They’re an eight-member choir in their late 20s that actually run themselves. They sang together 10 or 15 years ago and came back again after college to sing together.”