German choirboy returns to 2nd home in Middlebury

MIDDLEBURY — Manu Feiber has been making regular visits to Middlebury from his home in Germany every summer since he was an exchange student here in 2003 and 2004. When he made the trans-Atlantic visit this month it was a little different than usual.
This time, Feiber brought with him 50 members of the prestigious Stuttgart Hymnus Boys’ Choir.
Originally from southern Germany, Feiber, 27, has sung with the choir since the age of 13, and missed it during his year abroad in Middlebury. Eleven years of planning and hard work later, he saw the fruition of his dream: to introduce the two most important aspects of his life, the Stuttgart and the Middlebury communities.
The Stuttgart Hymnus Boys’ Choir sang a beautiful concert on Sunday, June 15, at the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society in Middlebury.
Imagine this: You’re 16, and you have just arrived in a foreign country. You have no family to stay with. All you know is the name of the school you’ll attend, and the name of the state you will call home for a year — Vermont.
Such was Feiber’s lot when he arrived in America in the fall of 2003. A student with the AFS study-abroad program, Feiber intended to spend his junior year studying at the Gailer School, then located in Shelburne. Upon arriving in Burlington, he and a student from Brazil were taken in by the president of Gailer’s board of directors, John Canning, until they were found host families.
Luckily for Feiber, Kate Gridley soon volunteered to host the young man from Germany for the academic year, taking him into her Middlebury home alongside her husband, John Barstow, and their two sons, Angus and Charles, then in the 7th and 10th grade, respectively.
The Gridley Barstow clan had hosted one particular youth for 10 consecutive summers through the Fresh Air Fund, an organization that sends kids from the city to spend summers in the countryside, so they were well accustomed to accepting newcomers into the family.
Feiber soon found a place within the Gailer School — “That was a great school, I really liked going there,” he said in an interview during last week’s visit — and became fast friends with Courtney Ives, also a Gailer student at the time. In fact, after Feiber returned to Germany, Ives studied in Germany, and has since become fluent in German. (She also traveled from Minnesota for the Middlebury concert.)
But the one thing Vermont was missing for Feiber was the Stuttgart Hymnus Boys’ Choir, the 200-boy choir he had sung with since his early teens. He sang solos in services at the CVUUS in Middlebury, but he missed the choir’s close community and musical scholarship. And as Feiber began returning to Vermont each summer to volunteer at the Champlain Music Festival, he had an idea — why not bring the Stuttgart choir to Vermont?
So it was with great excitement that Feiber was finally able to bring his choir to Vermont, 11 years from the first time he arrived in America, to perform in his self-proclaimed second home, Middlebury.
The Stuttgart Hymnus Boys’ Choir was founded in 1900 in Stuttgart, a city of 600,000 in Southern Germany. Boys can audition for the prestigious choir at any age but most begin at age 6, sometimes singing for 20 years (the oldest members of the choir are 26 and 27). The choir also recruits from surrounding elementary schools.
The choir is a significant presence in the boys’ lives — rehearsals are twice a week for two to three hours, and many boys commute considerable distances to sing. Now an internationally recognized choir, the Stuttgart Choir has travelled throughout Europe, performing a repertoire of European sacred music to concert halls and churches alike, while also singing regularly in local religious services.
Feiber joined the Stuttgart Choir at age 13, when he found out about it through a friend.
“I went with them one day and then I stayed,” he said before the choir assembled to perform to a full house at the CVUUS this past Sunday.
The Stuttgart Choir soon became a major part of his life, and he grew to love the music and the community it brought — with over 200 boys and men, the choir was a hub of music scholarship and deep friendship.
“I very much enjoy singing with them because it’s just so uplifting,” he said. “You can come to the choir whether you’re happy or sad, you’ll always leave with hugs and smiles.”
When he first went back to Germany, Feiber’s dream of a North American tour seemed unfeasible; the choir lacked the funds necessary, and Feiber was still too young to help organize such a large project. But, by a stroke of luck, six years later a boys’ choir from Philadelphia came to Germany to sing and stay with the boys’ choir in Stuttgart.
“And that’s when the idea of an actual exchange became more present and more prominent,” Feiber said. “And at some point we just said, it would be great to do this, is there a way of coming over?”
Gridley and Barstow, who helped organize the CVUUS concert and provided dinner for the 50 singers, pointed out that it was “really great” that the Middlebury concert was made possible only by a community effort. Friends from all over pitched in: The boys’ choir from Philadelphia that had once stayed in Stuttgart offered to host the Stuttgart singers during their Pennsylvania stop, and Feiber’s friends in the Green Mountain State, including Gridley, Barstow and Canning, helped secure venues in Vermont and organized host families for the boys.
Thus began the very first North American tour in the Stuttgart choir’s 114-year history. Around 50 boys from the choir flew from Germany to Philadelphia where they were greeted by the boys’ choir that had once stayed with them in Stuttgart. From there they traveled through to New York City and then to Vermont. There were three days in Vermont; first, a concert in Burlington, and then a free day spent exploring Shelburne Farms and climbing Mount Philo, followed by the concert in Middlebury.
“Yesterday was a perfect day,” Feiber said on Sunday as members of the choir played soccer and ate pizza before the concert. “It’s a great feeling to be able to show everyone here why I like singing so much, and to show these guys why I like coming here so much. It’s really cool.”
After singing on Sunday, the choir continued on to Boston for one last performance before catching a flight back to Germany.
Despite a minor hitch — some advertisements for the concert said it began at 6 p.m. instead of 7 — the auditorium was full and the choir performed beautifully under the leadership of their musical director, Rainer Johannes Homburg. Music by Benjamin Britten, Bach and Hiller filled the sunny room as Feiber, now one of the older members, sang in the back row, with the youngest boys, some as young as 10, in the front. The youngest boys wore traditional black robes with large white collars, while the young men wore suits and ties.
At one point it was explained that the choir was juggling more than eight parts per song and as such were liable to slip up, but the boys and young men sang with confident expertise.
The tour has been a homecoming of sorts for Feiber, who has enjoyed introducing the choir to his friends in Middlebury.
“It was hard to emotionally prepare for this because it’s basically bringing both of my worlds together in a way, because I very much enjoy singing with them because its just so uplifting,” he said. “Because whenever I come in the summer I leave refreshed and rich, which is great. Being able to bring those two worlds together is just … I didn’t think that was going to happen. But it did. So it feels wonderful. And they are all enjoying it so much.
“When I left Germany to go on this exchange,” he continued, “I didn’t dream about coming back here at least once a year for every year after that, so it’s … wow.”

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