CARY — It's easy to forget that Asher Philips is only 11. And it's not just that he has already toured the world with the fabled Vienna Boys' Choir and sung at Carnegie Hall, it's that he is poised and mature beyond his years.
Except when he's not. One evening before Christmas found Asher practicing for a holiday program at Resurrection Lutheran Church, accompanied by Raleigh Boychoir director Bob Unger on piano. During warm-ups, a missed note prompted very youthful giggles.
But then he began to sing - really sing - swaying a bit and rocking up and down while singing an old French carol. the words seemed to take flight, ringing out in a bell-clear tone.
Il est né, le divin Enfant
Chantons tous son avenement!
As Asher sang, members of the church's handbell choir were trickling into the sanctuary for their own rehearsal. Instead of making small talk in the lobby, they came in, sat and listened raptly.
After he was done, a few applauded. Asher just shrugged and gave a small smile. Then one of the handbell players threw out a question.
"Do we have to follow that?"
The next morning, Asher was cooling out at his family's home in Raleigh, still feeling a bit groggy. Before getting several weeks off at Christmas, Asher had been home less than two weeks since last June. But being on the fast track has its demands.
The Vienna Boys' Choir dates to 1498, and Asher is its first member from North Carolina (and one of two current American members). That has put him on stages as far away as Russia and Kuwait - and also at New York City's Carnegie Hall to wrap up a 43-city U.S. tour.
"Carnegie Hall was sold out, and there were scalpers, people trying to get tickets outside," said Asher's mother, Eva Philips. "They got a double standing ovation, two encores. ... We can only imagine what it was like from the stage."
Bringing on tears
Actually, Carnegie Hall wasn't the most memorable show of last fall's tour. The cities all run together so Asher can't recall where it was, but one show induced actual tears in the audience.
"There were two men in the front row, and toward the end they started crying," Asher said. "By the end, it wasn't just them, it was a lot of the concert hall. That was touching for us."
Asked if he has been doing solo spots on tour, Asher said no, not really. But his father, Jonathan Philips, said they've heard from relatives across the country who have seen Asher do solos on songs including Sting's 2000 hit "Shape of My Heart."
Asher shrugged it off.
"When I get older, I'll have a bigger voice and be able to project more," he said. "I'm still too young to sing with a big voice." Asher comes by his musical inclinations honestly - his maternal grandparents both played in the Richmond Symphony. His singing career began a few months before his ninth birthday, when he joined the Raleigh Boychoir.
A few Boychoir alumni have gone on to big things, including "American Idol" (Clay Aiken and Anoop Desai). Asher stood out immediately, and not just for his voice. Unger, Raleigh Boychoir's artistic director since 2008, cites his willingness to work, musical aptitude and, most of all, spirit.
"What's great about Asher is he's got that sparkle when he sings," Unger said. "All the singers I work with have wonderful voices, but not all of them show it in the eyes. He does."
Asher is an avid sports fan, and the Boychoir got to sing at Lambeau Field, home of his favorite football team, the Green Bay Packers. He played sports, too. Asher sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" at one of his own swim meets, and he also played football. But that created some scheduling conflicts.
"Asher had singing obligations, and when we'd tell the coach this he'd look at us like we were from Mars," Jonathan Philips said. " 'Whadaya mean, singing? He's a football player!' But he was very nice at the year-end banquet, talked a bit about Asher's singing and everyone's different gifts."
When the American Boychoir performed in Raleigh in 2010, Asher did a guest spot that prompted an audition invitation. He passed, but Asher already had his heart set on joining the 100-member Vienna Boys' Choir - which he'd been following since a 2009 show with his grandparents. He was invited to a monthlong audition at the Vienna Boys' Choir summer camp in Austria. By the end, he was a full-fledged member.
According to his parents, Asher left for Vienna with nary a backward glance, toting nothing more than a suitcase and backpack. There has been some homesickness, but they keep up via Skype and YouTube clips. And Asher got to watch most of his beloved Packers' games this past season - except for the one they lost, because it happened when he was onstage at Carnegie.
Asher stays busy at school in Vienna. Singing takes up about four hours a day and everyone has to keep up with schoolwork, too. Asher's parents pay a modest tuition, but the group's performance fees cover most of the school's budget.
Members come from all over the world, although most are Austrian. Remarkably, Asher undertook his adventure even though he didn't speak German (neither do his parents, who have had to use Google Translate to make out documents from school). But when school starts up again this month, Asher will be taking his classes in German.
"I heard him speaking full sentences back and forth with the prefects backstage at Carnegie," his father said. "It's amazing how quickly he's picked it up, just from immersion."
When his voice changes
Singing in the Vienna Boys' Choir is an amazing opportunity, but for a finite time. Asher will turn 12 in April, and his voice is starting to drop. Already, his soprano is lower than it was six months ago.
"I was first soprano and now I'm second soprano, a little lower," he said. "I'm hoping to wind up a tenor."
Most boys are out of the Vienna Boys' Choir by 14. Asher says he wants to stay in as long as he can, although he doesn't think of music as a career.
Still, there's every chance Asher could make a go of it. Eric Mitchko, N.C. Opera's general director, cast Asher in a lead role in "Turn of the Screw" last year and came away impressed enough to contact other companies doing "Turn" to recommend Asher.
"As for his future, you never know," Mitchko said. "He's got a great foundation, he's a smart kid and he's already very poised. I've never encountered an 11-year-old with that level of maturity."
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