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Choirs come together at International Choral Kathaumixw

Former and current artistic directors reflect on festival beginnings and expectations
Kathaumixw feature
PERFECT NOTE: International Choral Kathaumixw music advisor Walter Martella directs the Academy Chamber Choir at a rehearsal before the festival’s opening. Dave Brindle photo

Every two years since 1984, Powell River has hosted what has grown into one of the largest and most respected choral festivals in the world.

Choirs travel from around the globe to perform at International Choral Kathaumixw. This year, choral groups from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Hungary, United States and Canada are attending, along with Powell River’s host choirs.

It all began in 1975 when Kathaumixw founder Don James formed Powell River Boys Choir with 20 boys between the ages of nine and 14. James took that group out into the world. Through their voices being heard on international stages, a world of song followed them back to Powell River.

“That’s exactly what happened,” said James. “Once the boys sang in the prestigious Eisteddfod International Festival in Llangollen, Wales, I could see what this small town, smaller than Powell River, could put on. I thought, ‘Why not give it a shot?’ and I really didn’t realize what it would become.”

It started small and became bigger. The first Kathaumixw had about a dozen choirs, according to James.

“This year we had 54 choirs apply to come to Kathaumixw, which would fill the festival twice,” said Paul Cummings, who was named artistic director when James retired after Kathaumixw 2012. Cummings said the position has been demanding and expectations are high.

Through choosing the repertoire, actively recruiting choirs and then accepting them into the festival, Cummings is putting his own stamp on Kathaumixw.
“You have to surround yourself with your people,” he said. “Whether that’s finding new composers to write works for the festival, or to bring in some of the younger talent who can come to Powell River and direct these mass choirs, I’m able to add more of my personal touch.”

Cummings said there is an expectation from organizers and audiences that each Kathaumixw year will exceed the previous one.

“It’s tough to top every year,” he said. “There’s pressure because you want everything to go so well.”

Cummings has travelled the world to other festivals and has an appreciation for what Powell River has accomplished with Kathaumixw.

“Sometimes you go to festivals and the venues are absolutely gorgeous, but there’s nobody there,” said Cummings. “We have shown up to performances with the Powell River Youth Choir in different parts of the world and the only people there are the two adjudicators and the cousin of some kid who happens to live in that area. Other times you get a nice audience but the venue is not favourable; that’s not the case with Kathaumixw.”

Demands an artistic director has with an event the size of Kathaumixw are daunting, including last-minute details and the aforementioned high expectations. However, rising above the number of choirs, singers, tickets and billets associated with the festival, ultimately, there is the music.

“It’s really fun. I love that part of my job,” said Cummings. “I’m being forwarded music I’ve never heard before from composers and arrangers I’ve never heard of and it opens a whole new world.”

Cummings has commissioned new works this year from Victoria Symphony composer-in-residence Tobin Stokes and Sarah Quartel, a prolific composer from Ontario.

He has also sent out scores and downloads of the repertoire to be performed by the mass choir at performances in the Great Hall. Until now, choirs have been working on the music independent of each other.

“On the first day of full rehearsal, which is Wednesday, they sing together for the first time,” said Cummings. “That is absolutely thrilling because people from all over the world are standing shoulder to shoulder. Altos from New Zealand, China, Australia and Austria are all singing the same notes and lyric.”

Ay-Laung Wang returns as a featured performer and jury member of Kathaumixw 2016. Wang, who has attended the festival since 2004 as an organ and piano accompanist, described that moment when the accompaniment comes together with voices as “having goosebumps all over.” She distinctly remembers her first festival.

“I was amazed by the whole Kathaumixw experience. It was absolutely stunning,” said Wang. “I wasn’t expecting anything like it. I still remember how shocked I was.”

Wang is widely acclaimed and has performed with orchestras all over the world. She said there is something very special at Kathaumixw compared to other festivals she has attended.

“The level of it is exactly the same in terms of excellence, but there is more to it,” she said. “It’s the Powell River people.”

James is reflective on the deep meaning of Kathaumixw, because of choirs coming together in music and the culture of their countries.

“It’s also about the soul of countries,” he said. “It broadens everyone’s view of the world and what music means to people in various countries. It’s been a stunning education for local people who go to hear the best choirs in the world and their music, and realize how powerful it can be and how similar our feelings are about community.”

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