A talented 11-year-old Jewish boy from Redwood City, California decided to follow his musical dreams all the way to Austria. Elijah Priwer, was recently accepted to the Vienna Boys Choir, the most prestigious boys choir in the world and is now living 6,000 miles away from his family.
It’s not easy for Elijah (also known as Eli) to be away from home, and his parents and four siblings miss him dearly. But none of them wanted to pass up this amazing opportunity for Eli to develop his gift.
“At the end of the day, we are his parents, but we don’t own him. We have to let him grow in to the person he is going to be,” said Shana Priwer, one of his parents.
Priwer, who tests software, and Eli’s other parent, Cynthia Phillips, a planetary geologist, have raised all five of their children to be musical. Both women were musically trained themselves (Priwer attended Juilliard), and they started their sons and daughters on piano at age four. The children all play two instruments each, but Eli is the only one who also sings.
Eli joined Ragazzi, a Bay Area boys chorus, when he was in first grade. Two years ago, he auditioned for the Vienna Boys Choir (which dates to 1498) and received provisional acceptance.
“We just weren’t ready to let him go all the way to Austria by himself when he was just nine,” said Priwer. “We sort of put it aside for a couple of years, and then last July he attended the choir’s summer program at Lake Wörthersee in southern Austria.”
While Eli was at the camp, his parents got a call from the management who said they wanted him to stay year-round and attend the choir’s boarding school at the Augartenpalais, a Baroque palace and former imperial hunting lodge in Vienna where the 100 choir members live, study and sing.
The boys are divided into four touring choirs, and Eli would be placed in the one named for Haydn, which was scheduled to travel to Japan, among other places, in 2013-2014.
With a large family to care for, Priwer and Phillips had to think about whether they could afford the heavy expenses. They decided to take on the financial burden, and are using a fundraising website to reach out to others for help to the tune of $30,000.
“Elijah has four other siblings, and his expenses in the choir are beyond what we can manage alone. Please help us support Elijah in what will surely be a life-changing experience, and help him share his gift of beautiful music with audiences all over the world,” they wrote on their fundraising page.
Once the decision to let Eli stay was made, the family went into gear figuring out how to provision him for the cold Austrian winter, when all the clothes he had with him were a few t-shirts and pairs of shorts. Fortunately, Phillips’ sister is a doctor working in Switzerland, and she brought Eli some basic toiletries and warm clothes. Eli also stocked up on winter wear when he had to come back to California briefly this fall to take care of visa issues.
Even more than the cold weather, Austrian food has been a challenge for Eli. A vegetarian, he found himself in a country where people eat a lot of meat.
“He is not a fan of Austrian food,” said Priwer. “I heard they arranged to have a crate of frozen Gardenburgers, and they are warming one up for him for every meal.” Eli also wisely stuffed his suitcase with American comfort food, like peanut butter, when he was home for a few days.
In his twice-weekly Skype calls home, Eli tells his family about his studies and the other students in the choir. With all his classes taught in German, he is learning the language in an immersive fashion. He seems to be happy socially, making friends mainly with other international students. Eli is one of only two Americans in the choir, and the only one in the Haydn group.
Boys usually stay with the choir until their voices change
Eli is currently a mezzo-soprano and “nowhere near puberty,” according to Priwer. Boys usually stay with the choir until their voices change, and they even have the option of staying on for a high school program.
Eli will see how things go this year and decide where he wants to continue his musical pursuits. As active members of Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto, his parents look forward to seeing him singing from the bimah at his bar mitzvah in early 2015. Although he has attended the religious school at Etz Chayim since he was five, Eli’s packed schedule in Vienna isn’t allowing for any Jewish education this year.
Priwer is confident that one way or another, the family will work out the best way for Eli to carry on with his musical passion. Singing is just something he knows he has to do.
Priwer recalled something her son told her a year ago, when he was just 10. “He told me he feels music in his heart, and he feels like he has to sing because he has to share what is in his heart with others.”