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Voices of Passion
7/1/2012 12:00:00 PM
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 a
All That Jazz
7/1/2012 12:00:00 PM
Until about a year ago, the Bogˇaziçi Jazz Choir was relatively unknown inside its own country of Turkey, despite the fact that the ensemble had been around for nearly 20 years and brought home multiple prizes, including gold, from the 2010 World Choir Games in China. That all changed in early June 2011 when 14 members of the group boarded a subway in Istanbul during rush hour and staged a vocal flash mob, the current cultural phenomenon where a group of people gather in a public setting and appear to break into a spontaneous—but what is really a well-rehearsed—performance.
In this case, the crowded car of commuters was treated to a finger snapping, a cappella rendition of the American spiritual, “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.” It was a most unusual scene in the predominantly Muslim country, but one that, nonetheless, delighted the captive audience, who burst into enthusiastic applause when the last note took a jazzy slide downward.
Choir Director Masis Aram Gözbek had brought along a filmmaker friend that day to capture the event, hoping that it could be used to attract sponsors to help fund the choir’s then-upcoming trip to Graz, Austria, for the World Choir Championships. The video immediately went viral, accumulating an amazing one million hits worldwide within two weeks. “It was mentioned on TV and radio shows as well as in newspapers and magazines,” Gözbek says. “We did countless interviews and appearances on the news and talk shows.” The video also sparked the ultimate sign of success: imitators. “I even managed to break my mobile by making more than 500 calls the day after the video started being shared,” Gözbek says. In a flash, the Boğaziçi Jazz Choir had an international following and more attention than they ever could have imagined.
The choir’s performances at the World Choir Championships last July were equally impressive. They were named Champions in the Folk and Contemporary Music categories and No. 1 in the Folk World Rankings. They also earned 13th place in the overall World Rankings, claiming the distinction of being one of the top 20 choirs in the world. They’ve been busy with competitions and performances since. “We appeared in the 18th International Istanbul Jazz Festival, the Akbank International 18th Jazz Festival, the 17th World Route Development Forum in Berlin, and the 4th International Istanbul Choir Days,” Gözbek says. “We were part of a project called Play for Nature, as well as a Turkish National News Channel documentary, and were nominated for one of the most prestigious musical awards in Turkey, the Donizetti Classical Music Award. We won Choir of Year and Ensemble of the Year. Right after the 2012 World Choir Games, we will go to Hungary for the Cantemus International Choir Festival.”
What makes Boğaziçi Jazz Choir’s success all the more remarkable is that its membership is constantly changing. What had been a student choir at Boğaziçi University became an independent musical organization last year, open to anyone who wanted to audition. “There have been pros and cons to that,” Gözbek admits. “It can be very difficult to keep a group of people together who come from different parts of Turkey and who have different lifestyles and backgrounds. It’s not always easy for members to attend every concert so, as weird as it sounds, we often do concerts and competitions with different numbers of choristers.” The group also lacks a permanent rehearsal space and a reliable source of funding. Still, Gözbek believes that the many wonderful moments the group has experienced in the past year outnumber th
Soul Mates of Sound
7/1/2012 12:00:00 PM
Any attempt to describe Voices of Unity Youth Choir—winner of two gold medals and a Champion of the 2010 World Choir Games—has to begin with its sound: precise, practiced and, more than anything, powerful. A great choir has certain qualities. Some are tangible like talent and musical proficiency; others are harder to define. For Voices of Unity, it’s what happens when director Marshall White stands before his young singers, and they begin to channel his enthusiasm and energy, producing a sound that is rich, emotional and inspiring.
In 2000, White launched Unity Performing Arts Foundation in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He was acting on an idea that had been simmering for several years: an organization that would use the arts—music, dance, creative writing, drama and oratory—to teach urban kids self-discipline and character, and to instill the belief that these qualities paired with hard work could make anything possible.
What made that principle challenging was White’s decision that anyone who wanted to be in the choir, regardless of ability, would be allowed to join. “I wasn’t going to audition kids just to tell some of them no,” he says. Over the first six months, those who couldn’t match a pitch when they started learned to sing. “I don’t teach traditional choral techniques,” White admits. “I teach a vocal style whose sound comes from the soul, and people are always telling me how amazing the choir sounds.”
A good deal of that success comes from his disciplined approach to rehearsing. For many of the choristers, it’s a family affair. Currently, the 103 members represent 65 families. They range in age from 6 to 25 and come from Fort Wayne and surrounding communities. One girl makes the weekly trek from Toledo, which is about 110 miles away.
Every three-hour rehearsal begins the same way. Before they open their folders and begin to sing, White delivers a half-hour life lesson, a discussion of the core values that will enable each of his choristers to lead a fulfilling and meaningful life. “Our mission is youth development and creating potential leaders,” he says. The underlying message: No dream is too big to dream.
If there was any doubt about the validity of that concept, it evaporated in 2010 when White and Voices of Unity traveled to China to participate in the World Choir Games. They won gold medals in the Popular Choral Music and Gospel & Spiritual categories, as well as the Champion of the World Choir Games title in the latter category (highest score from the judges). For choir member Stephanie Woodson, the memory of the announcement that the choir had been named Champion remains vivid.
“It was the most incredible moment of my life,” she says without hesitation. “We ran to the stage to accept the award, and sing our national anthem as the American flag was raised in the air. We were so overwhelmed with emotion, and when we returned to our seats, our equally joyful and tearful Chinese tour guides greeted us.” It was an amazing achievement for White and Voices of Unity and one that, seven months earlier, had seemed as likely as a trip to the moon.
In late December 2009, White got a call from Lori Lobsiger, INTERKULTUR liaison in the U.S., later named Director of North American Markets for INTERKULTUR. “I had known Lori when she was executive director of the Embassy Theatre Foundation in Fort Wayne,” White explains. “We had done some performances there, and she fell in love with what we were doing.”
Lobsiger didn’t mince words. “She asked me how I and the choir would like to represent our country at the World
7/1/2012 12:00:00 PM
The Martin Luther School Concert Choir of Queens, New York, has had its share of the spotlight in the past couple of years: two performances at Citi Field during New York Mets baseball games; a TV appearance on Good Day New York; participation in the Bronx Zoo’s “Sing! For Wildlife” competition; an appearance at a New York Islanders hockey game; and numerous school and community concerts. Not bad for a school choir of only 18 singers, especially when you consider that a mere two years ago they seldom performed outside the school. How did they get so good? And so popular? Katie Chan Chee, their choir director.
From the moment she arrived four years ago, it was clear to Chan Chee that her students needed to be challenged, not only to be better singers but, more importantly, to believe in themselves. “Many of my kids come from tough situations, and they need something positive in their lives,” she says. They have found it in choir.
“Our wonderful administration has long valued the arts as necessary to developing well-rounded individuals, so every student has to be in chorus or band as well as art,” Chan Chee says. “Most of our kids are beginners, because they come from elementary and middle schools whose music programs have been cut,” she explains. “It’s a huge challenge to get them up to speed,” which makes their participation in the 2012 World Choir Games all the more impressive.
Two summers ago, Chan Chee saw the BBC TV series, The Choir, about a dedicated teacher who turns a group of disinterested kids into a top-notch choir so they can participate in the 2006 World Choir Games in China. “When I found out that the 2012 World Choir Games were going to be in the United States, I knew this was our one chance to go,” she says. Martin Luther High School Principal Elizabeth Crowe agreed it was a great idea, then told Chan Chee she better start fund-raising.
When Chan Chee told her concert choir students that she wanted to take them to the World Choir Games in Cincinnati, she vividly recalls their reaction: “They were so excited that you would have thought I was taking them to the moon.”
Seventeen-year-old Joanna Garcia thinks it will be a social studies lesson come to life: “The best part for me will be seeing all the different cultures coming together in one place,” she says. “I know it’s going to be amazing.”
Chan Chee knows the value of such an experience. As a music major at Valparaiso University in Indiana, she toured with the college choir every spring, traveling throughout the country on a bus. “We still talk about those choir tours, and the great times we had,” she says, laughing. She also knows firsthand the hard work it takes.
“The kids this year aren’t any more talented than the students I’ve had before, but they are so motivated,” she says. “They have just improved by leaps and bounds, because they know what a big opportunity this is for them.”
There’s also another reason behind their determination and dedication. They don’t want to disappoint Chan Chee. “They’ve had to take on more responsibility themselves for learning the music,” she says. That’s because Chan Chee had to deliver some difficult news last fall as they began to rehearse in earnest for the upcoming World Choir Games. She told them that she had breast cancer and had started chemotherapy treatments a couple of weeks before school started.
“It was very emotional for them, but I’ve been honest with them throughout the school year,” she says. “If I had to leave early
Uniting Cultures With Song
7/1/2012 12:00:00 PM
For the people of Africa, singing is as basic to the human experience as breathing. Every stage of life, from birth to death, and every activity—be it work or play—is accompanied by song. Thoughts, emotions and moods are sung as often as they are spoken, and singing is a thread that runs through daily life connecting one day to the next.
For the past 19 years, the Chitungwiza Harmony Singers of Zimbabwe in southeastern Africa have been sharing that tradition through their unique interpretations of African music, as well as the music of other cultures. “We were formed in 1993 by [current conductor] Israel Dzangare with the idea of indentifying undiscovered talent,” says choir manager Sheila Kahuni.
Dzangare found a rich pool of talented singers in Chitungwiza, a densely populated city about 19 miles south of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare. Within a year, the choir began entering and winning competitions, and in recent years has distinguished itself in South Africa, where the continent’s best choirs perform and compete.
Choral music claims an important role in Africa’s cultural landscape, uniting black African and white European and American musical traditions. Although the words usually reflect some aspect of African life, the music often shows elements of classical, gospel, jazz or blues harmonies. The Chitungwiza Harmony Singers perform in several languages, including English. The process of learning a new work in another language begins with mastering the melody. “The words are then introduced and finally the polishing of pronunciation,” Kahuni explains.
Two years ago, the Chitungwiza Harmony Singers, with the help of local musician Lorna Kelly, borrowed the beautifully poignant melody of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” from the opera Nabucco. Kelly substituted words that told of Zimbabweans’ struggles for dignity and freedom, naming their version “Oh Zimbabwe.” A YouTube video has taken their rendition around the world.
Conductor Dzangare has been a driving force in seeing that choral singing remains a mainstay of Zimbabwe’s musical heritage. In 2009, he became the first president of the National Federation for Choral Music in Zimbabwe. “Israel has such a deep passion for this music and is respected as a great teacher,” Kahuni says.
This year, for the first time, the Chitungwiza Harmony Singers will sing in the World Choir Games. “We hope to have around 50 singers, none of whom have been to the U.S. before,” Kahuni says. The choir will compete in The Open Competition in the Folklore category. For choir members, a mix of students and adults of all ages from Chitungwiza and nearby Harare, it will be a chance of a lifetime. “Back home we are a household name,” Kahuni says, “but this event will give members the recognition they truly deserve.”
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