A 'hwyl' of a time

Tara Bradbury
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Festival 500 activities run July 3-10

Beatboxing vocal group Witloof Bay, from Belgium, will participate in this year's Festival 500 celebrations.

The Welsh word "hwyl" has no English translation. It's hard to explain, but can perhaps best be described as a ecstatic inspiration, or a sudden passion.

It's something Festival 500 executive director Peter Gardner hopes to get going during this year's grand finale concert.

"When there's a lot of you singing together and you suddenly get into this harmony and everyone gets excited, somebody might say we'ge got a hwyl going. It means there's a feeling. It's very uplifting, it's very emotional, but you only get it when a lot of people sing together," Gardner, who grew up in Wales, explained, illustrating his point with a story of growing up 12 miles north of a rugby stadium, and hearing the hwyl during international matches.

"I think this is what Festival 500 is all about. It's about sharing the experience of singing together. You hope that everybody's going to have a hwyl."

This year's Festival 500 opens Wednesday, July 3, and runs until July 10 with 28 choirs and vocal ensembles from around the world participating in workshops, symposium presentations and public performances.

There's a focus on contemporary choral music this year, with groups like Witloof Bay, a beatbox ensemble from Belgium which made it to the semi-finals in the 2011 Eurovision Song Contest, and Size2Shoes from Ireland, who have performed at the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival and at the LSPU Hall with Russell Crowe and Alan Doyle.

The festival's grand finale concert, which Witloof Bay and local native David Pomeroy will headline, will feature more than 1,000 singers performing a rendition of pop star Katy Perry's "Firework."

The very definition of choral music has changed over the last 30 years or so, Gardner said, with trends in popular music and TV shows like "Glee."

"It isn't about singing just one idea or standing very immobile on a choral riser anymore," he explained.

"There's music and there's movement. I was recently out in Corner Brook and we had the alumni choir of Holy Heart of Mary there. There were probably 60 women in that choir. I don't know that I would call (what they were performing) choral music, yet it was really exciting to watch. They were all moving around on the stage, they were singing music from musicals, popular music, all sorts of music, and thoroughly enjoying themselves. That might not have happened 40 years ago."

Event has taken roots

Festival 500, founded by Susan Knight, began as one of a handful of anchor events for the Cabot 500 celebrations in 1997, and was intended to be an economy boosters.

Since then, the biennial international choral festival has become world-renowned, with more than 260 choirs from 56 countries having taken part, and an estimated contribution of $6 million to the province's gross domestic product.

A celebration of the unity of music, the festival includes not only performances, but one-on-one lessons and masterclasses with people like conductor Sandra Snow, British composer and choral conductor Bob Chilcott, and Pomery, a tenor and rising opera star.

Youth will have the opportunity to work with Francisco Nunez, artistic director and founder of the Young People's Chorus of New York City.

The festival, in co-ordination with MUN, will present The Phenomenon of Singing International Symposium IX, the academic component to Festival 500, with keynote presenters Nunez, Kathy Armstrong, David Moss, Mia Makaroff, Tim Sharp, Daniel Taylor, Paul Poovathingal and Marian Dolan.

Other performing groups include Polokwane Choral Society from South Africa, Minnetonka Chamber Choir from Minnesota, U.S., and Jeunes Chanteurs d'Acadie from New Brunswick, as well as a number of local groups: Shallaway, Afterglow, the NSO Philharmonic Choir, Cantus Vocum, AcaBella, and the Prince of Wales Collegiate Choir. Venues include the St. John's Arts and Culture Centre, Mary Queen of Peace church, D.F. Cook Recital Hall, and Yellowbelly Brewery.

It's all about diversity, Gardner said.

"What we talk about when we're planning is what is current. What is exciting, and who is good at it," he explained.

"It's always about quality and never about quantity. Heading into 2013, we were looking around the world, and there's a lot of research going on before you engage somebody. We don't just think, 'Oh, that would be a nice idea, let's have them,' we actually look at what they are going to bring to this, how good are they, and are they a rising star or are they waning? We also look at what they do (besides) the concerts. Are they multidimensional? Do they have anything else to offer?"

Festival organizers have changed the layout of Mile One for the finale concert and, for the first time, have turned it into a concert hall, with the stage place on the long side of the bowl, instead of at the end.

"We have to be honest about it, it's a hockey rink," Gardner said.

"By putting the stage on the long side, putting the choir above the penalty box and putting the stage in towards the centre line, everybody's now closer, pulled in. Instead of all those seats that went miles and miles back on the floor, there's only going to be a number of seats on the floor, and then immediately up into the fixed seating."

A full schedule of Festival 500 events and ticket information is available on the festival website at www.festival500.com.

tbradbury@thetelegram.com Twitter: @tara_bradbury

Organizations: Polokwane Choral Society, Minnetonka Chamber Choir, Prince of Wales Collegiate Choir

Geographic location: Witloof Bay, Wales, Belgium Ireland Newfoundland and Labrador Corner Brook Young People New York City South Africa Minnesota U.S. New Brunswick St. John's

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