SIMPSONVILLE — The crowd loved the rhythms of the traditional Negro spirituals and they loved the beautiful sounds of Haydn’s Mass of “St. Jean de Dieu,” but when the boys sung Danny Boy with a French accent, featuring an 8-year-old soprano soloist, that brought the house down. And what a house it was.
About 1,200 people filled the church of St. Mary Magdalene on August 6 to hear a concert put on by a French Catholic boys choir known as The Sparrows of Marne Valley. The 40 boys range in age from 8 to 25, and in voice from alto to bass. The older young men of the choir and their director, Denis Dupay, organize concert tours each year; so far, the boys have visited other European countries, Canada, Japan and the U.S. They are now on a summer tour of the United States and came to South Carolina because of a supporter and friend, Mary Magdalene administrator, Father Hayden Vaverek.
“I agreed to host them eleven years ago, when I was in Greenwood. I visit them when I go to Paris, and they recently made me an honorary member of their board,” Father Vaverek said.
Parishioners and guests were glad they did. The Sparrows filled the church with rich sound, taking advantage of the fine acoustics at Mary Magdalene. The power of their voices, especially in the higher registers, surprised many who heard them.
“It sounded like there were 200 of them instead of just 40,” said Gary Towery.
Host families of the parish put the boys up for the week that they were in the Upstate, and fed them. Kim and Mark Capelle, parents of nine children ranging from a college graduate to a newborn, hosted five of the boys in their country home, and that suited daughter Claire, 14, just fine. She found them to be cute, she said, but she also appreciated their musical repertoire.
“I liked the different arrangements of their music,” Capelle said. “It was a wonderful concert.”
The Sparrows started life in 1953 as a parish choir begun by their pastor in Nogent-sur-Marne, a village just outside Paris. It expanded its reach over the years to include the whole area and they now practice twice every week and tour in the summer.
“It’s an avenue by which the boys grow into men,” said Father Vaverek. “This is a wonderful opportunity for them to come to the United States for a month to experience our people and our culture.”
The Sparrows sang an hour of sacred music and an hour of secular, and finished up by leading the audience in America the Beautiful. During the final refrain the boys pulled out little American flags and waved them. The received a thunderous, standing ovation.
On Aug. 8, the Sparrows of Marne Valley sang a concert at Our Lady of the Family Church on Hilton Head Island.