A huge, elaborate concert set-up might be a given when acts like U2 or Katy Perry tour Canada this summer, but for a festival of choirs? Not really what you’d expect. That’s exactly what’s going to go on at Mile One Centre next week, when Festival 500: Sharing the Voices presents its grand finale concert, headlined by Finnish choral ensemble Rajaton performing their acclaimed ABBA show with the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra (NSO).
“Other than for major rock concerts, this is unprecedented,” said Peter Gardner, executive director of the festival and artistic director of the NSO. “People might think that a grand finale of this size and complexity for choral singing goes on across the country, but it does not, it only goes on here. It’s quite unusual, it’s what we’re well-known for, and what’s here is something which is not a copy of anything else.”
What began as one of six major anchor events for the Cabot celebrations in 1997 and intended to be an economy booster, the biennial international choral festival is a world-renowned event in singing circles. Funded by the province in the beginning, the festival has been supported by its own voluntary non-profit organization, which has been winning government grants, corporate sponsorship and donations since 1998.
It has also been successful at achieving its original money-generating mandate, contributing an estimated $6 million to the province’s gross domestic product since it first began.
But above all that, the festival is a celebration of the unity of music, Gardner said, and this year will be no different than previous years. Starting today, 23 choirs, nine small vocal ensembles, conductors and clinicians from 16 countries — Canada, United States, Argentina, Brazil, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Germany, U.K., Ireland, South Africa, Philippines, Australia, Indonesia, Kenya and China — will descend on the province, mainly St. John’s, to participate in eight days of workshops, symposium presentations and performances in 26 venues.
Unlike previous years, however, the 2011 festival has something special for the small vocal groups. Instead of just going to rehearsals, the nine small ensembles have signed up for a series of intense one-on-one lessons and master classes with the members of Rajaton and British composer and choral conductor Bob Chilcott. The groups will have a chance to receive individual coaching as well as evaluation and critique together.
“We’re doing this because this is a growing art form around the world, and because we have Rajaton here, which is one of the world’s leading small vocal ensembles, particularly in a new type of singing where they (also) make sounds, which we call beatbox,” Gardner said.
Audiences will be able to catch performances by the nine small a capella vocal ensembles at MUN’s D. F. Cook recital hall over the weekend. Other public shows include afternoon concerts at The Kirk and Mary Queen of Peace church and World of Music concerts at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre and Gower Street United Church. Each of the latter concerts will feature three choirs that will each perform a 25-minute program, concluding with them singing three pieces together.
An East Meets West concert, featuring Rajaton and the Indonesian Children Youth Cordana Choir will happen at the Arts and Culture Centre July 10 at 8 p.m., and a multimedia performance by the award-winning local Lady Cove Women’s Choir, exploring relations between indigenous music of this province and the growth of choral communities, will take place at the Arts and Culture Centre July 12 at 8 p.m. Nova Scotia’s Camerata Xara Young Women’s Choir will also perform.
Festival 500 is also offered the choirs and ensembles the opportunity to perform in rural settings, with a concert series called Up the Shore and Around the Bay, in Ferryland and Brigus/Cupids Tuesday. The participating choirs travelled to each community to see some of the sights before their concert.
The elaborate Festival 500 grand finale will have a snapshot of all the performing choirs, more than 1,000 singers, accompanied by the NSO, as well as Rajaton’s ABBA selections.
“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t go away from the concert uplifted,” Gardner said.
“Newfoundland has always had a strong relationship to singing, but on top of that, singing is something anybody can do and can relate to,” he continued. “People sing for all sorts of things, ranging from weddings to funerals. The biggest art form in the world, really, is singing.”
Art and art
The singing isn’t the only art form that will be displayed during the festival: Five Island Rug Hooking Group, in a project organized with Festival 500, is presenting, “A Whale of a Tale … With Hooks, Lines and Singers,” an exhibit of hooked rugs, done especially to honour the event. Coinciding with the exhibit will be the release of a book of the same name, published by Flanker Press.
The rug hooking group has produced more than 40 colourful rugs, each celebrating the power of song in Newfoundland and Labrador and beyond. The members of the group didn’t have to look far for inspiration, said Maxine Ennis.
“For most people it was easy to do because we all have such a musical heritage in Newfoundland, that everybody’s background has stories of dancing and accordion playing and music and kitchen parties,” Ennis, a group member, explained. She contributed a number of rugs to the project, the biggest called “One Song,” representing music as a universal language uniting youth. “It’s really about the power of song to make a difference in life and to be able to share,” she explained.
The rug hooking exhibit and book launch will open with a reception in the Upper Concourse of the Arts and Culture Centre this evening at 6 p.m.
“The whole city should turn out for this stuff, because it’s a celebration of this province,” Gardner said. “I think people tend to take some things for granted; I think they don’t realize what they’ve got here. This is pretty different and they won’t be able to go to another town and find a festival like this.”
A full schedule of Festival 500 events is at right and ticket information is available on the festival website at www.festival500.com.