The Shaoxing University Choir will travel 7,400 miles from the northeastern Zhejiang province of China to sing and compete in the 2012 World Choir Games. In 2010, the Games took place in Shaoxing, casting the choir in the role of hosts and hometown ambassadors (as well as competitors) to 472 choirs from 83 countries. This year, they will find themselves celebrated as honored guests and enter the 2012 Games ranked fifth in the world among female choirs. To understand their success, one merely has to hear them sing.
Two words characterize the Shaoxing University Choir’s sound: passionate and precise. A video of the group at the 2009 Golden Bell National Music Games in Chongqing, China, shows the ensemble performing a Hungarian folk song that is at times beautifully ethereal contrasted by moments that are dramatically powerful. A year later, at the 2010 World Choir Games, they showed off that same range and musical versatility with award-winning performances of traditional Chinese music, western classical music and Christian songs. “Our young singers embrace the musical treasures of both the East and the West,” says Sharon Zhao, Shaoxing University Choir media director. This past February, the choir took part in the National Performing Arts Competition for University Students in China and took first prize in the chorus category.
The Shaoxing University Choir has participated in the World Choir Games since the 2006 Games held in Xiamen, China, repeating its participation in the 2008 Games in Graz, Austria, and taking home gold that year.
“Although the music program started in 1994, the choir wasn’t formed until 2002,” Zhao says. The current conductor, Xiuyu Li, took over leadership in 2009. Membership averages 32 to 40 singers, mostly university students majoring in music education. “We were not originally a competition choir, but we joined the World Choir Games as a way to foster international communication,” Zhao explains.
In many ways, the Shaoxing University Choir is a perfect symbol for the Games. China’s cultural heritage, one of the world’s oldest, stretches back thousands of years, yet what has become its tradition of choral singing was introduced a mere century ago. “Original Chinese choral singing was formed during China’s revolution in the first half of the 20th century,” Zhao says. “The militia would sing songs with strong patriotic messages to encourage each other.” The songs, sung in unison, incorporated elements borrowed from Chinese folk music.
During the second half of the 20th century, other themes began to appear in choral music. “They began to sing about the people’s ambition to construct a prosperous country and the disciplines people should follow to achieve that,” Zhao says. Eventually, musical traditions from other cultures began to influence choral singing in China as well, such as polyphonic singing—or singing in two or more parts. Along with the homage to revolutionary heroes, song lyrics began to celebrate the Chinese people’s love of nature, life and each other.
“Choral associations and competitions have been held nationwide since,” Zhao says. “Among the most active choirs are those found in primary schools and high schools as well as universities.” Many villages and cities have their own choirs that compete and perform throughout the year, at home and internationally.
“We still sing the revolutionary songs, but we have also witnessed in the 21st century more songs about people’s feelings and introduced more foreign choral music,” Zhao adds. “People [in general] are more interested in choral music.”
The journey to this year’s World Choir Games is the first trip to the United States for all members of the Shaoxing University Choir. Although they received some financial help from the Chinese government and Shaoxing University, the students themselves have had to come up with most of the money. “Parents help some, of course,” Zhao says, “but most of the students have part-time jobs to raise money for the trip.”
The choir hopes to add to its impressive World Choir Games history. In 2010, it won three gold medals (Female Choirs, Musica Sacra and Folklore with Choreography) and was named Champion in Female Choirs. It will compete this year in Musica Contemporanea. They will sing traditional Chinese music, including the music of Shaoxing Opera, Tibetan music and the folk music of Hainan (the smallest province in China), but with modern arrangements.
“We are really new to the world choir music stage and learn so much from others,” Zhao says. “At the same time we are recognized by others for what we’ve accomplished. It’s a lovely experience.”