Charleston's first and only festival devoted entirely to the choral arts is poised to bring a promising assortment of local and visiting choirs to town this weekend for its second edition. After last year's uncertain beginnings, the Charleston International Festival of Choirs will present nine ensembles in performances at a wide variety of local venues, plus an "en masse" evening combining their collective voices under the directorship of distinguished guest conductor Dr. André J. Thomas.
Right from the start, the idea has been to attract top non-professional choirs to the festival from across North America and Europe. Last year, after the global recession exploded, the festival had to fall back mostly on local and regional choirs after several scheduled foreign ensembles were forced to cancel; each organization has to pay its own way after all. Still, the show went on to considerable acclaim.
Even in the face of lingering economic malaise, this year's festival has attracted more interested choirs than it can accommodate. "The recession actually worked in our favor this time," says Lee Pringle, one of the festival's founding directors. "Current exchange rates that devalue the American dollar make it less expensive for foreign choirs to travel here, while leaving domestic choirs that want to tour abroad looking for alternative performing opportunities closer to home." Thus the festival will live up to the "international" part of its name for the first time this year, with one of the featured choirs coming from Germany and another from Canada.
Pringle plans and manages the CIFC in partnership with retired choral educator Marilyn Austin and Jodi Breckenridge (who runs Music Contact International, a Vermont company that organizes tours specifically for choirs). Breckenridge describes how — in less than a year — the festival has become widely known in choral circles. "Word apparently got out about us after last year's successful festival," she says. "Choirs everywhere began to line up, and we filled all our vacancies five months ago." Pringle adds that "Charleston has an attractive global reputation as a desirable place to perform, with its wealth of historic performing venues and a sophisticated listening public that appreciates quality choral music."
Beginning Fri. April 23, single choirs will appear at three local retirement communities; other ensembles will appear in "friendship concerts" at five area high schools. Saturday is the festival's big day, with a marathon concert running the entire afternoon at St. Matthew's Lutheran Church, featuring 30-minute performances from all nine choirs. Then there's the day's grand finale: All of the ensembles will gather at Citadel Square Baptist Church at 7 p.m. for a "massed sing," raising all 300 of their collective voices under Dr. Thomas' seasoned baton in a well-chosen program of all-American music. But it's still not quite over; the following Sunday morning, individual choirs will finish up with public concerts at six different area churches. Save for Friday's school events, all concerts are free and open to the public.
It's hard to overstate the value of Dr. Thomas' presence at this year's festival. He directs one of the nation's leading academic choral programs at Florida State University, and his international reputation as an A-list choral guru is secure. In addition to rehearsing and leading Saturday's big massed sing, he'll conduct individual master classes for all nine participating choirs. "He was a huge draw," says Breckenridge. "We had to start turning good choirs away after word got out of his involvement this year."
The CIFC's managers are already bullish about next year's festival, when yet another big-name choirmaster will be involved: Belmont University's Dr. Jeffery L. Ames. As Pringle put it, "Choirs everywhere will be flocking for the chance to work with him, just as they did for Dr. Thomas this year."