In Focus: Edmonton Int. Choral Festival

Pro Coro Canada is launching a new Edmonton International Choral Festival that will wrap with a large gala choir performance.

By Maureen McNamee

The downturn in the economy is creating tough conditions for arts groups and festivals facing a shortfall in funding from corporate donations and ticket sales. But it didn’t stop plans to launch a new international choral festival in Edmonton.

“We started talking about it three years ago at the front end of the crisis,” says Michael Zaugg, artistic director and conductor of Pro Coro Canada, a professional choir in Edmonton. “Of course we couldn’t foresee that crisis—maybe some economists could, but we couldn’t.”

Audience support, however, was steady and Pro Coro was able to get grants for the new festival, so they forged ahead with a slightly scaled-back plan and a healthy dose of optimism. “We hope this translates into ticket sales for this festival and general enthusiasm for the next one,” Zaugg says.

“Being part of these big choirs at the end, singing beside others, to have that experience—I felt very strongly that Edmonton and Pro Coro would be a great catalyst to provide that,” he says.

The first-ever Edmonton International Choral Festival will be held June 1–4 and will include workshops, lectures and performances by three professional choirs: Pro Coro Canada, Halifax Camerata Singers and, from Sweden, Voces Nordicae. On the final day, all three will be joined by 120 amateur singers from across Alberta for a special gala choir performance.

Audiences will hear a range of voices and styles—from jazz to pop to classical—presented visually with actors, musicians and screen projections.

The inspiration for the festival came from Zaugg’s experiences growing up in Europe, where he spent summers travelling from one choral event to another. “Being part of these big choirs at the end, singing beside others, to have that experience—I felt very strongly that Edmonton and Pro Coro would be a great catalyst to provide that,” he says.

Zaugg was born in Switzerland and started his career as a tenor before becoming a conductor and educator. He was the first Swiss conductor accepted to the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm, and has since conducted choirs from around the world. In Canada he was previously artistic director of the St. Lawrence Choir in Montreal and the Cantata Singers of Ottawa. In 2012 he joined Pro Coro Canada, which was founded in 1981 and remains one of the few professional choirs in Canada.

Zaugg’s pitch for the festival gained support from Pro Coro’s board of directors and other choral groups in the province, and the plan took shape. He says it’s the only choral festival in Canada produced by a professional organization that invites other professional organizations to participate. He adds that the performances will showcase the high calibre of singing in Alberta.

The gala choir on the final night is the highlight of that effort. Amateur singers from Alberta applied to sing with the professional choirs, and Pro Coro chose 120 applicants as well as some youth singers and emerging artists. The choir will be conducted by Robert Sund, a well-known Swedish composer, teacher and conductor. Sund also chose the repertoire, which will include some Swedish, French and North American songs—“a broad variety of styles and languages,” says Zaugg.

Pulling off a new international festival in the midst of a downturn was a big first step, but success ultimately depends on how many people attend. If all goes well, the plan is to host another festival in 2019.

Maureen McNamee is an associate editor at Alberta Views.

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