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From Vienna to Brookline?

Why Andy Icochea Icochea left the renowned boys choir to (happily) take over a small chorus in Brookline

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By James H. Burnett III
Globe Staff / September 6, 2011

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That anyone questions the wisdom of his latest career choice makes Andy Icochea Icochea chuckle.

A thin man with dark eyes and frizzy dark hair, Icochea Icochea (twice named, because his mother’s maiden name and father’s surname are the same) was, until a couple of months ago, a choir master of the renowned Vienna Boys Choir, the same one that sings to popes and presidents. But in the spring, after six years in that post, he quit, left Austria, and moved his family here to take over the PALS Children’s Chorus of Brookline - a predominantly girls choir.

To some, it would be like Terry Francona deciding one day to quit managing the Red Sox and go to the minor leagues to take over in Pawtucket. But Icochea Icochea, who is 38, says he was ready for the change.

“It’s quite simple, really,’’ he says. “I did it for my family. Traveling so often and for such long periods is fine for a while, maybe a longer while if you’re a single person. But I have a family. My wife and I have two young children. And I wanted a job that would allow me to spend more time with my family, to watch my children grow, to be there. We wanted to be closer to my wife’s family back here in the United States. Our oldest daughter is beginning elementary school. And then I learned that PALS was in need of an artistic director. The timing was perfect.’’

That’s because Alysoun Kegel, who led PALS for the last four years, left recently to study choral conducting at Carnegie Mellon University.

“He’s not just talented, as a director, and conductor, and singer too,’’ PALS executive director Jill Carrier says of Icochea Icochea. “He also is such a likable person that he has great connections internationally and is so well respected. We look forward to that good will carrying over to PALS.’’

The Vienna Boys Choir is made up of four choirs with equal standing, each named after a classical master - Bruckner, Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert. Icochea Icochea and his choir, the Schubert, maintained a busy schedule for up to four months a year, and they visited 27 countries, singing before the rich and famous and sometimes just the plain old lucky local parish that managed to score a Vienna Boys Choir charitable performance.

He says his goal here is no less ambitious and that he wants to make his new choir as good as the one he just left. “The PALS Children’s Chorus of Brookline will become the world’s next great children’s chorus,’’ he says. “I promise.’’

The PALS group - its name stands for Performing Arts at Lincoln School - is in its 21st year and is made up of 150 singers who range in age from 6 to 14. It was founded by Johanna Hill Simpson as a nonprofit musical group-in-residence at the W.H. Lincoln School in Brookline. Simpson remains Artistic Director Emerita of the group, which draws students from all of Brookline’s elementary and middle schools, as well as private schools across the Boston area.

Though it does not have the cachet of the Vienna Boys Choir, PALS, founded in 1990, has made a name for itself in New England, through collaborations with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Lyric Opera, and the Boston Early Music Festival.

The Vienna Boys Choir’s history goes back quite a bit farther. Initially founded in 1498 by a rector of the St. Stephen’s Cathedral Choir, it was not officially called the Vienna Boys Choir until 1924.

Icochea Icochea, whose wife, Jennifer Borkowski, is a professional flutist, was a child choral singer himself while growing up in Lima, and he began conducting his first children’s choir when he was just 15.

As for his newest singers, they seem curious, if unfazed, by his past with a famous choir.

Eight-year-old Carolina Bragg, a junior PALS member who is starting third grade at the Lincoln School, says she gets good vibes from Icochea Icochea. “I’m interested to work with him, and he seems like a really nice guy,’’ Bragg says.

Sophie Morganstern, 11, a rising sixth-grader at the Lawrence School and a senior PALS member says she has mixed emotions. “I’m excited and nervous all at the same time,’’ she explains.

Her brother, Max, 13, and also a senior PALS member, sounded more deliberate. “I’m very excited to have Andy as PALS’s new conductor,’’ he said. “He connects with kids flawlessly, and I think he has the same kind of motivation to improve our choir as we, the choristers do.’’

Jason Knight, an 8-year-old junior PALS member, caught Icochea Icochea in a moment of leisure, shortly after the conductor arrived in town: at an ice cream parlor in Brookline.

Knight, who was with his father at the time, said he and his father read about his past job and that he was impressed with all the places he’d been. “He sang a song from every country I asked him to except Algeria!’’ Knight said.

As a performer himself, Icochea Icochea is no slouch. He has served as operatic conductor for composer Carlo Pedini’s “Il Miracolo’’ and Marco Pontini’s opera “Togliti il Mantello.’’ And he has led the group he founded, Ensemble Vienna Nova, in operatic performances including “The Magic Flute,’’ “Rita,’’ and “The Elixir of Love.’’

The differences in the life he left behind and what he’s taken on are not lost on Icochea Icochea.

For months now, he said, friends and colleagues have wanted to know why the leader of arguably the world’s most famous boys singing group would quit to lead a talented, but virtually unknown, mixed-gender group with more girls than boys, in a suburb of Boston? And he acknowledges what people, especially in the city that was the epicenter of the Catholic Church’s priest sex abuse scandal, might be wondering: whether there is something that he’s fleeing from.

But there was nothing, he says. “This was a decision to maintain and increase my family’s happiness.’’

He says he and his wife missed the cultural, racial, and ethnic variety of life in the United States, something they wanted their daughters to experience.

But certain family traditions they won’t be giving up: They still won’t own a television, and rather than take other people’s word on their surroundings they plan on hitting the streets and immersing themselves in new and random neighborhoods, until they feel at home. They hope that will lead to more moments like the ice cream shop run-in with young Jason Knight.

Icochea Icochea and Borkowski first met nearly 20 years ago as students at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J.

And while she admires his musical acumen, she may be most proud of his commitment to family.

“He did this for me - leaving Vienna and coming back to the US,’’ Borkowski says. “He loves family, and the thing is it carries over to how he deals with the kids he leads. He is a genius with them, and it’s amazing the sounds he can get out of them.’’

Icochea Icochea earns points with his new boss, Carrier, for his priorities as well.

“It’s almost cliched to say, but I admire that he puts family first,’’ the PALS executive director says. “I really believe for people like that who prioritize from a good place, opportunities arise and doors open that allow them to continue showing greatness.’’

Icochea Icochea says now that he’s joined PALS, he considers the group to be part of his family, too, and the choristers to be his “other’’ children.

“Imagine it to be like a two-way adoption,’’ he says. “The children needed me, and I needed them.’’

James H. Burnett III can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jamesburnett.

Icochea (Lucas Beck) Icochea Icochea with his Vienna Boys Choir group.