Foreign tongues 

Crashing the coral, er, Choral Festival

It's been on everyone's lips for weeks, and I've been dying to get involved. A Coral Festival! Sweet! I love snorkeling. Where'd I put my Speedos...?

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But, of course, it's not coral everyone's talking about, it's choral. As in, the International Choral Festival. You know, singing. I've heard of the festival, but I've never even been to one. And although the entire event takes place above water, I'm still game to act as an unofficial hand-holder for this year's first-timers.

First, a little background on this shindig: University of Montana Professor Donald Carey put together the debut Festival in 1987, after touring Europe with the Missoula Mendelssohn Club, and conducting the University's Chamber Chorale in France a few years earlier. He was so knocked out with the old-world hospitality and enthusiasm for his groups, he thought Missoula should return the favor and host an international festival here.

Organizers were amazed by the overwhelming response from countries like Austria, France, Germany, and the burgeoning nation of South Dakota. Crowds filled the venue—a high school gym—to overflowing, so the concert was moved to the more spacious environs of UM, and Carey and his crew knew they had a hit on their hands.

Seven festivals later, Missoula has played host to choral groups from 40 countries, not to mention 12 U.S states.

But it's not just about the music. Organizers found more than 100 host families to house, feed and transport the 215 international singers who came to Missoula this year.

"We keep hearing that we're not really different from each other," says Executive Director Carol Stovall. "We discover that we share a lot of the same hopes and dreams and problems and everyday life." Still, our isolated location can present some difficulties for a first-time visitor from the other side of the world. Like, "Where can I score some fried Baltic herring this time of night?" or "Okay, who stole my rubber mbui-bui?"

But that's the singers' problem. Potential attendees are more concerned with what they're getting themselves into. For one thing, according to Stovall, you're not going to be rubbing elbows with your typical stuffed-shirt symphony crowd. The emotional pull of music created by the human voice cuts across all socio-economic boundaries, and it's a real mixed bag of concertgoers that pack the venues to dig the soaring vocals and the lush, complex harmonies.

"It's music we really don't get to hear very often," says Stovall. You'll hear everything from the spooky Gregorian chants of the Tbilisi, Georgia choir, to the vocal stylings of the heavily trophied Concert Choir from the Czech Republic. It's a good thing the latter group cleared their visas, or I would have been forced to make some lame joke about the cancelled Czechs.

The Tianan Chamber Choir from Taiwan has an interesting makeup—most of its 26 members are elementary and junior high school teachers. Their choral focus, though, is to mix it up with the people and music of other cultures, which makes for a highly entertaining concert full of surprises. Just don't get caught chewing gum.

If you manage to get to only one performance, though, make it the finale concert at Washington-Grizzly Stadium Saturday, July 18, at 7 p.m. The "Parade of Nations" features the entire collection of choirs, each singing a sample of their country's music. It's kind of like the Olympic closing ceremonies, but without the fireworks or cornball commentary from Bob Costas.

The festival is a stunningly complex undertaking, requiring lots of international legal wrangling, which is why they need three years to prepare. Organizers and lawyers have to wrestle with government agencies over passport and visa issues, and the constantly shifting sands of world politics makes it a challenge for them to make this ambitious event a reality.

The polished performances, colorful finery and pure musical bliss of the concerts can belie the turmoil left behind by the singers from some of these global hot spots. Estonia, for example, was kicking a leg out from under the barstool of the Soviet Union by declaring their independence, when their Tallinn Chamber Choir traveled to Missoula for the International Choral Festival in 1990. Within a year, the Soviet Union had collapsed. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not, comrade.

From Mexico to South Korea, these far-flung nations have sent their musical emissaries to Big Sky Country, leaping political boundaries to show thousands of participants and fans that music is the universal language. I'll be there. In my Speedos.

The International Choral Festival continues through Saturday, July 18, at venues across Missoula. All-access buttons cost $15. For a full festival lineup, visit

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