Festival of choirs weave a web of vocal excellence

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

This weekend, 90 girls and 43 boys from fourteen schools representing 43 nationalities descended on Muscat for two days of vocal rehearsals at the American International School Muscat.
Founded in March 2004, ‘Festival of Choirs’ is now in its 16th year, the vision of TAISM’s Choral Music Teacher, Melanie Brink, and Director, Kevin Schafer.

The visiting students stayed with host families in the Sultanate and participated in a Weekend Masterclass for High School choristers. Students had prepared the groundwork on six songs in their home schools, and the fifteen hours of workshops, training and rehearsals in Oman led to a final polished concert performance on Saturday evening in the prestigious Bosch Centre for the Performing Arts, under the themed title, “Common Threads”.

The sewing metaphor pervaded the weekend’s activities and the compositions chosen by the educators, in subject matter and technique. This year’s programme was unusual in that it featured two Guest Conductor-Composers, Timothy Takach and Jocelyn Hagen. Opening proceedings, Mr Schafer welcomed the audience to the culmination of many hours’ hard work, praising Omani traditional hospitality which allowed singers from all over the globe to come to the Festival and share weaving of the musical and community fabric.

Immaculately dressed in black (with some blue) concert dress, the 133 young people were arranged on risers in perfect choral formation for the final performance. The first piece, ‘I started Out Singing’ by the composer in residence, Jocelyn Hagen, to words by Naomi Shihab Nye, was a World Premiere in its Soprano, Alto and Bass arrangement. It was Spiritual inspired, with a lovely piano accompaniment played by the composer, with fine clarity of diction and pitch from the choir, especially in the soprano line. The second piece, ‘Gamaya’ by Paul John Rudoi with text from the Bhadaranyaka also sounded like a Spiritual, without piano, but with live drum accompaniment supplied by Andrew Redmon from Ras Tanura ES in Saudi Arabia. It featured an improvised female solo, echoed by the choir on “Shanti, Gamaya”, moving to richer, warm harmonies. ‘Crossroads’ by guest conductor, Timothy Takach to a poem by Joyce Sutphen was introduced by the composer: ‘’The second half of my life’ captures what it is like to reach a milestone in one’s life… and look forward to the future’. It was delightfully sung with excellent intonation in beautiful four-part harmony in a more conventional style, accompanied by an arresting piano part, rising to a lovely, strong conclusion.

Melanie Brink gave a short welcome as the choir took a break for a Musical Interlude, explaining how music provides life–long learning, which really never stops. As if to prove the point, two familiar songs were performed by the guest couple as acapella band, ‘Nation’, with body percussion and microphones.

Reassembled back on stage, the students resumed with Jocelyn Hagen’s, ‘Needle and Thread’ from their acapella choral oratorio, ‘This is How You Love’ to a short poem by the celebrated poet, Amanda Lovelace: “You brought the needle and I brought the thread. We meant to mend our two broken hearts, but we ended up stitching them together.” Conducted again by the composer, it was sung in beautiful harmony by the now quite serious-looking students, accompanied on piano by guest teacher from Vienna, Kathy Heedles. The fifth song was very interesting; composed jointly by Hagan and Takach, ‘Love/Light’ was commissioned in the US for a double-choir work. It is formed of two songs which can be performed separately or together. The first, ‘Even after all these years, the Sun’ was composed and conducted by Takach, with a very high soprano line in a comfortably contemporary musical language. ‘Yours is the light by which my spirit’s born’ by Hagen was performed next, and then the two were sung simultaneously, weaving a compelling web of vocal excellence.

The ‘thank you’ speech, delivered this time by Takach, outlined that life in music is a journey, and this weekend in Muscat has been part of that journey in microcosm. He praised the achievement of the project community, hoping that music would become part of the students’ life in future, be it singing, playing an instrument or in some other field of the Performing Arts. The Finale, ‘Afka Hooya’ (Mother Tongue) was an original piece, composed and conducted by Takach on a Somali text that celebrates how language can bring a community together. Inevitably with an African chant flavour, it included ‘call and response’ elements, clapping and foot stamping. It was accompanied by piano and two drums, with Stephanie Gravelle from AS Doha, in an appropriately lively, rhythmic composition with some delightful harmony sung enthusiastically by the talented teenagers. They concluded with a well-deserved photo-shoot to round off another successful, Festival Weekend.

By Georgina Benison, Oman Observer