Bringing singing back

A ‘reinvigorated’ Festival 500 launched this week

Published on June 28, 2014
Susan Knight, artistic director and chairwoman of Festival 500. — Submitted photo

The only thing better than singing is more singing, songstress Ella Fitzgerald is reported to have said.

This is the philosophy Festival 500 organizers have taken in redesigning the biyearly event into something more lasting.

Founded by artistic director and chairwoman Susan Knight, the original festival was developed as one of a handful of anchor events for the Cabot 500 celebrations in 1997, intended to become economy boosters. Over the years, it became an anticipated international choral festival, with more than 260 choirs from 56 countries having taken part and an estimated contribution of about $6 million to the province’s gross domestic product.

Each year the celebration of music included public performances, master classes and one-on-one lessons with world-renowned conductors and performers.

For a number of reasons, the original concept of the festival proved to be unsustainable — and this week, organizers launched a revisioned event they’re calling “Festival 500: Growing the Voices.”

Instead of a celebration of choral music, the goal now is to make singing accessible to everyone and any time, through a “rolling” festival with ongoing features.

“It’s about connecting with people all around the world to have a new conversation about what singing together as human beings can be, from-cradle-to-grave kind of thing. I think it’s important to have a sense of that,” Knight said.

“The new clothes on the festival are really a facilitating agency for all forms of singing together and community.”

The first event for the new festival was a community sing-a-long with Sheila Williams, Peter Halley and Shelley Neville, held at St. John’s City Hall Monday evening. More than 200 people attended the free event, singing tunes ranging from “Sweet Caroline” to “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.”

St. John’s Coun. Dave Lane attended the event.

“The evolution of Festival 500: Growing the Voices is important to our city because it has designed and strengthened our global identity as a place of song and singing,” he said.

The notion of the festival has been revised — “reinvigorated,” Knight said — to a permanent celebration.

“It’s ridiculous to think that everyone in the world could be in a choir, but there are all sorts of ways to encourage lullabies, nursery rhymes, and all sorts of singing together, whether it’s for health and wellness or community building or team building in companies,” Knight said.

“The sky is the limit, in a sense, so we feel hugely encouraged by that.”

She said she has presented plans for the revised Festival 500 at choral conferences in Budapest and Washington over the past few months, and the response was one of excitement. The organization’s dedicated approach to bringing singing back is something that’s not being done anywhere else in the world of which she’s aware, she said.

“Hopefully other people will do similar things, because it’s not like we want to hang on tight to this thing we’re inventing. We actually want to give it away so other people will take it up, and it will have a knockoff effect.”

Events planned for Festival 500 include more community sing-a-longs, a singing in the workplace program, choral workshops, training for song leaders, and programs like “So You Always Wanted to Sing,” bringing together people who like singing but never thought they had the talent.

There will still be symposia and conferences, but on a different scale and in a different form than the festival has produced in the past.

The organization also hopes to build a major online and social media presence.

Twitter: @tara_bradbury