Missoula's International Choral Festival: Making The World Smaller Through Music

Jul 14, 2016

"One of the choir members we [hosted] had said that they would never, ever allow anyone to say anything against the United States of America after coming to this."

That’s Karen Somerset, talking about the International Choral Festival, a four-day celebration of singing and culture that happens in Missoula every three years. This is Festival week and Karen and her husband, Ray, are hosting people from Poland.

"Two members of the The Bialystok Technical Institute Choir, both of them 22 with reasonable English, and they were excited this morning for a home-made breakfast. They’d been in New York for five days and ate pretty much junk food. It’s just a delight. This is our seventh time hosting a group," says Ray Somerset.

Anne Marie Brinkman is executive director of the International Choral Festival — the person in charge of a thousand details and hundreds of people.

"This festival, in particular, we have 90 host families involved. And they will spend just a great amount of time transporting their choir member, feeding them, entertaining them. And then for volunteers, I think our volunteer coordinator worked out something like over a thousand volunteer hours in the week of the festival. And we’re looking at about 80 to 100 volunteers to cover those hours. So it’s quite a big undertaking. And I just can’t even tell you how many hours our board of directors puts in over a three-year period."

Karen and Ray Somerset are hosting singers from Poland. Choirs from eight countries are in Missoula this week for the International Choral Festival.
Credit Mike Albans

Meanwhile, in other parts of the world, the choirs were working hard as well. Here’s the conductor of the choir from Cienfuegos Cuba, Honey Moreira.

"It was a very large process with our papers and permissions and everything. And of course we practice, a lot, for preparing all the program for this beautiful festival. Like Cuban music, some choreographies that we prepare, too. So, we practice normally every morning from 9:00 to 12:00. And we had some extras practicing for this beautiful event."

And although Cantores de Cienfuegos has performed in festivals all over the world this is the first trip in the United States for everybody in the choir.

Cuban choir Cantores de Cienfuegos sings during a live performance on Montana Public Radio Wednesday, July 13, 2016.
Credit Josh Burnham

Festival volunteers are determined to give the Cubans, and everyone else, the best experience possible.

"I’m Teresa Sobieszczyk. I actually sing with the Missoula Symphony Chorale, and I’m volunteering because I love choral music and international travel and international guests. So I’m volunteering to make sure that the choirs here from so many different countries have an excellent time."

Everyone I talked with was having an excellent time.

"Ello, Drein, Lisen, and we’re from Estonia. You’re so friendly. Yeah. It’s so nice to be here."

"I’m Jeff, from Hong Kong.  This place is magical. Really good. Beautiful places, beautiful people."

"Spurrel Studio Choir from Oakville, Ontario, in Canada. Oh we’re having such a good time! [girls laughing] It’s fun to discover new things."

Missoula’s Mayor John Engen believes the International Choral Festival is good for Missoula and everywhere else.

"Oh, it’s amazing. I mean you have people living with one another and learning from one another and a big world gets smaller in all the right ways. So at the risk of hyperbole, I think this festival is important not only to Missoula, but to the world as we sort of hear the rhetoric on the national level about what divides us, and these voices here are kind of what brings us together. Right? And it’s pretty remarkable. I think if we spent a little more time singing together and a little less time squabbling with one another, we’d be better off."

The International Choral Festival continues through Saturday evening. You can see the festival schedule here.