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Vienna Boys Choir Conductor Quits

December 21, 1998

VIENNA, Austria (AP) _ Her tenure was brief, her vision of change short-lived. After less than two years on the job, the first woman conductor of the Vienna Boys Choir is gone, and the choir’s celebratory 500th year has ended in discord.

What caused the conflict between Agnes Grossmann and the ``Old Boys″ _ the former choir members who run the choir _ depends on who’s telling the story.

In any case, the bitter dispute is once again casting a bad light on Vienna’s famed musical institutions, long described as clannish and immune to change by composers and conductors as diverse as Gustav Mahler, Leonard Bernstein and Lorin Maazel.

Grossmann, 52, says she quit last month after a successful North America tour after ``running up against a wall″ of resistance to her idea of adding a fifth choir to help spread the work load _ about 300 concerts a year are now shared by four choirs of about 25 boys each.

In addition, she says the choir’s board refused to consider her suggestion that the organization _ now mostly self-supporting _ actively seek sponsors and state support.

The choir’s president faults Grossmann, saying she demanded too much from the boys and was meddling in areas, such as funding, that had nothing to do with her job as artistic director.

``The trouble with Mrs. Grossmann is, at some point, she began to believe that she personally was the Vienna Boys Choir,″ said president Karl-Heinz Schenk.

Such remarks are a sharp contrast to the way the choir management described the slight red head with a constant smile when she was appointed conductor in 1996.

Then, Mrs. Grossmann’s selection was hailed as ``a tribute to her exceptional musical and leadership abilities and the embodiment of a seismic shift in this venerable Viennese institution as it moves into the 21st century.″

In fact, the pace of change has been slow in the half-millenium since the choir was established in 1498 by decree of Habsburg Emperor Maximilian I.

The boys often had the best in musical education, with composers such as Mozart, Salieri, Haydn, Gluck and Schubert leaving their mark, either as former choir boys or as composers or conductors.

But the ``Old Boys″ were secretive and often autocratic _ despite some recent positive changes. These include opening the choir’s school to girls last year, giving the children more free time and permitting the parents to attend more concerts _ something previous directors said distracted the boys.

Imre Szanto, whose son is in the choir, accused the all-male management of ``acting like a bunch of machos″ to Mrs. Grossmann, and demanded greater disclosure of the choir’s financial and other dealings.

``We have little idea of what’s going on, the leadership is not accountable to anyone,″ he said.

The boys themselves seem determined to shrug off the dispute _ and the bad publicity.

``I don’t care what the papers write, I just want to keep on singing,″ said Reinhard Gabriel, an impish 11-year old with a page-boy cut.

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