There is something very Whitmanesque about the International Choral Festival, which brings accomplished singers from the extremes of both compass and ideology to Missoula, to see America and sing. Carol Stovall, the festival’s co-chair cannot say exactly what motivates these singers to pony up for plane tickets to travel halfway around the world and obtain visas to leave places like China and Cuba, all in order to sing in the Garden City. Maybe it is the prestige involved; after all, this is the first choral festival of its kind in the United States, but then again, choral festivals are not exactly stadium events over here. In Europe, most of these groups perform in choral competitions, where they receive cash and prizes; here, discounting our sententious concrete M, there are no obvious cultural lagniappes that are worth the thousands of miles. Perhaps, and this is where old Walt would be laughing in his beard, Stovall suggests that it is hospitality born of an egalitarian democracy that is attractive to these traveling jongleurs. The 315 choral singers will be housed by families in Missoula and fed on Thursday and Friday night at the Fairgrounds by local restaurateurs and community members alike. Whitman would be ecstatic about the idea that people from all over the world would come to America for us, the people.
The festival has been held every three years since it was begun in 1987 by Don Carey who still serves as the festival’s artistic director (they are off schedule by one extra year due to the renovations in the University of Montana’s Adams Center). The four days of concerts will kick off Wednesday, July 12 when groups from Denmark, Botswana and the Kammerchor from Austria will perform at Out to Lunch in Caras Park. From then on there is a relentless schedule of choral performances at almost every place in Missoula able to seat 100 people. My money is on the Cubans, who are reputed to be one of the best choral groups in the world. And we should be lucky to have them at all. International politics being what they are, the group is unable to fly directly from Cuba here and instead must change to a friendlier plane in Mexico. Instead of making their flight cheaper, it raised the ticket price prohibitively until the additional expense was absorbed by a nameless benefactor who wanted to see these Cuban choristers perform in Missoula. So catch them at the Bonner Park band shell at 8:45 p.m. on Wednesday night, the University Theatre at 2:45 p.m. and at 8:40 p.m. Thursday, and St. Anthony’s at 2:40 p.m. Friday afternoon. Also, look out for the policemen from Butterworth, South Africa. Singing policemen? Didn’t they have one of those in West Side Story?
The local talent that will be strutting their stuff are the Missoula City Band, the Missoula Youth Choir, the Ft. Peck Oyate Singers, and the Montana Alumni, not to mention fairly local groups from Oregon, Washington, and Georgia.
For the most part, the international groups will sing in their native tongue until the last night, Saturday, when the final concert will be held at the Adams Center. Each choir will sing one piece and then 800 singers, accompanied by the Missoula Symphony Orchestra with Joseph Henry, will perform a work composed especially for the event—the world premier of Bill McGlaughlin’s Walt Whitman’s Dream. McGlaughlin who is the host of the National Public Radio program St. Paul Sunday is an accomplished symphony director and composer who received the commission for this work from the International Choral Festival, the American Composers Forum and the National Endowment for the Arts.
The text of the piece is a medley of lines from Whitman’s most famous and evocative poems like “The Song of the Open Road,” “Song of Myself” and “I Sing the Body Electric,” set to music. And it is only fitting that Whitman is the subject of this new piece. For him, singing and poetry were both vehicles for celebrating his exuberance and love of life. And according to him, we should avail ourselves of this international experience, because “America does not repel the past or what it has produced under its forms or amid other politics or the idea of castes or the old religions.” Furthermore, our nationality should give us an appreciation of this madrigal party, since “Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.”
For more information on the International Choral Festival, see “8 Days a Week,” call festival organizers at 721-7985 or pull up www.choralfestival.org.