Correction: An earlier version of this story mentioned two choirs that are no longer performing. Lembaga Karsa Cipta Indonesia and Bangelus Choir will not appear as scheduled due to visa issues.
Pat Harris has a message for the Central Coast: “This is not your grandmother’s choral festival.”
“It’s not a bunch of people standing in robes and swaying,” the executive director of the California International Choral Festival and Competition said. “It’s a lot more fun. It’s a lot more interesting.”
Now in its third iteration, the biennial choral festival features colorful, compelling performances by choirs from as far away as Indonesia, Uganda and the Philippines. This year’s theme is “Choirs on Fire.”
The brainchild of San Luis Obispo Vocal Arts director Gary Lamprecht, the California International Choral Festival and Competition debuted in 2007 with a weekend-long series of packed performances.
Vocal music fans also flocked to the 2009 festival, which boasted two sold-out concerts, Harris said. Organizers have similarly high hopes for this weekend.
“There’s a local cadre of choral fans in this area,” festival marketing director Judith Carleson said. “They snapped up season tickets back in September.”
Audiences can look forward to a series of musical encounters starting with tonight’s free preview at Farmers Market in downtown San Luis Obispo. All festival concerts take place at the San Luis Obispo Performing Arts Center.
Friday’s opening night festivities include a meet-and- greet reception followed by a new event, “Ready, Set, Sing!” The scene will resemble “the choral Olympics,” Carleson said.
After the Central Coast Children’s Choir performs songs in Japanese, Spanish and Zulu, the visiting choirs will sing yet-to-be-announced “patriotic songs” from their native countries. The Vocal Arts Ensemble then takes the stage.
“We don’t know what awaits us,” Harris said. “It’s a surprise when we get on-stage and we hear this fabulous music.”
On Saturday, choral music fans have two opportunities to catch the visiting choirs in action: a free “required pieces” concert showcasing Orlando Di Lasso’s “Jubliate Deo” and Eric Whitacre’s “Lux Aurumque,” and the popular folk song competition featuring singers in native dress.
More international music will be performed at the choir’s choice competition Sunday afternoon.
The festival concludes Sunday night with an awards ceremony and grand finale concert. The visiting choirs will join the Vocal Arts Ensemble on-stage for “This is My Song” from “Finlandia” by Jean Sibelius.
Returning judges Christian Grube, William Hatcher and Ginger Covert Colla will grade the competitors on tone, rhythm, unity and their ability to move smoothly from a whisper to a roar.
Judges will also evaluate the choirs’ “stylistic sense” —described in the official guidelines as “(making) the music come alive in an appropriate historical and informed manner.”
This year’s competitors include Christ the King Church Choir from Uganda, which first performed at the festival in 2007. Prime Note Ensemble, an all-male Filipino choir, will also perform.
Representing the United States are three California choirs: the University of Redlands Chapel Singers, the Riverside City College Chamber Singers and the all-female Sola Dei Gloria from Fresno.
“What surprised me is how intense the competition is. They’re really dedicated,” Harris said.
Unfortunately, visiting the Central Coast isn’t easy.
In addition to a $300 entry fee, which covers food and lodging, each choir member must pay for travel costs, visa fees and other expenses.
“The visa process is excruciating,” Harris said, noting that festival organizers had to hire an immigration lawyer to bring Macedonia’s St. Zlata Meglenska choir to the United States in 2009. (Funding issues forced Pektoral, a choir from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, to drop out at the last moment this year.)
Fortunately, the festival received a $25,000 grant from the San Luis Obispobased Hind Foundation to help provide financial aid for international choirs.
According to Harris, the choirs see the festival as an opportunity for “international bridge building.”
“The participating choirs have been really happy with the festival,” she said.