Music News & Reviews

Boy soprano Bobby Hill to sing at Festival Mozaic concert

Bobby Hill will perform Saturday with the Festival Mozaic Orchestra at the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo as part of Festival Mozaic.
Bobby Hill will perform Saturday with the Festival Mozaic Orchestra at the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo as part of Festival Mozaic.

Central Coast music lovers have two serious reasons to be happy about Festival Mozaic, which celebrates its 46th anniversary this summer.

Saturday marks the local debut of one of the most exciting young performers in the classical world as he tackles an ambitious work of music rarely heard live on the Central Coast.

Boy soprano Bobby Hill will join the Festival Mozaic Orchestra at the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo to perform Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 in G major. Expectations are running very high.

So, who’s Hill, what’s Mahler’s Fourth Symphony and what brings them together?

Hill, 14, is the African-American vocalist who performed for Pope Francis at the World Meeting of Families Festival in Philadelphia in September — singing an a cappella version of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Pie Jesu” in a soprano voice of such astonishing purity that he became an instant star.

YouTube videos of the event offer an uncanny experience: An ordinary-looking American boy opens his mouth, and an angelic five-octave voice comes out. It’s just as amazing the 10th time as the first.

Hill has been stunning audiences ever since then. When the singer performed “Pie Jesu” on July 1 as part of a free concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra, an outdoor audience estimated at 10,000 to 12,000 mostly hushed their holiday revels.

Reached by telephone at his home in Philadelphia, Hill seemed as amazed as his audience.

“My whole career started as a fluke,” explained the singer, a member of the Keystone State Boychoir. “I wasn’t supposed to be the one singing for the pope, but there was a last-minute set change, so I got to do it.

“Now we’re planning more shows, mostly with orchestras,” Hill added.

In addition, he’s just recorded a couple of albums in the Czech Republic: one featuring holiday music and the other focusing on classical and religious pieces. They’ll be out later this year, he said.

It’s appropriate that the boy soprano will perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, perhaps the most moving musical staging of innocence produced in the 19th century. After three orchestral movements, the hour-long symphony ends with a setting of a traditional folk song, “Life in Heaven” (“Das himmlische Leben”), from the anthology “The Boy’s Magic Horn” (“Des knaben wunderhorn”). In the song, a child describes the Christian afterlife in terms of abundant food, even listing his favorite dishes — asparagus, peas, apples, pears and grapes.

Mahler’s scores are famous for the degree to which he spells out just what he wants the musicians to give him, and the composer’s note for “Life in Heaven” specifies a singer “with a gay, childlike sound, but entirely free from parody.” That last instruction is key, given how easily any adult could mock a child’s food-centered picture of heaven.

Most recordings of the Fourth Symphony feature an adult, opera-trained female singer — and grown-up irony permeates her voice.

“Most of the time, when an adult woman sings it, the voice doesn’t match the lyrics,” Hill said. “You need a person who’s … more pure-sounding.”

Hill’s youth, however, doesn’t give him a pass.

“This piece is really difficult to sing because it’s in German,” Hill said, adding that Latin and Spanish are easier languages for him. “There are all those weird vowels in German, and the ‘ich’ sound is hard to sing. So I’ve been studying this piece for a long time.

“(Mezzo-soprano) Frederica von Stade worked with our choir on it, and I like what she does with it. Her vibrato is just right.”

When Hill makes his San Luis Obispo debut, he’ll bring his just-right vibrato to Mahler’s heavenly vision, which ends with very appropriate words: “The angelic voices / Gladden our senses / So that everything awakes to pleasure.”

Bobby Hill and Festival Mozaic Orchestra

8 p.m. Saturday

Cohan Center, Cal Poly

$20 to $70

805-781-3009 or