Ohrid Choir Festival 2010 – Review

Ohrid, Macedonia. 26th of August. The weather is perfect. The mood is described as anxious. The third edition of the Ohrid Choir Festival is about to begin. The opening ceremony is being hosted by hotel Gorica outside the city, with a spectacular view over the coastline of Ohrid.
Sound Choir has decided to participate this year to one of the most important eastern-European choir competitions, held in Macedonia. This event has managed to attract no less than 35 choral groups from 16 countries. Being somehow close to home, Romania has been represented here by 5 choirs. And I bet you had no idea about this.
Let’s get things started without furthermore introduction. The next best thing by participating into a competition is that you have the chance to meet with a lot of competitors from all over the world. From this experience you can learn a lot. See new ways of interpretation, recognize music education based on ethnic originality and of course, trade musical sheets.
I haven’t been able to witness all performances due to the fact that our conductor, Voicu Popescu kept on telling us that this is not a vacation, but I think we have seen la creme de la cremes.
On the first day of the contest, the competition concert was opened by Children’s Choir “Omnes” from Riga, Latvia. The choir was founded in 1999 and participated and won prizes at several choir competitions and festivals. The conductor is Aija Kukule, a person that I had admired from the beginning but I will get into details later.
The kids were awesome, full of life and joy. Their image was simple but vivid. It is quite difficult to work with kids and this proofed the talent of the conductor. I guess one of the most important things while working with kids is the repertoire. If the kids like it, than you’ll pretty much have chances of success. And they had. They won the first prize in A category. No wonder there, with pieces like The Crokodile and my favorite, In the clock house by P. Plakidis.
Next choir in the program was Vuk Karadzic from Serbia conducted by Biljana Jeremic. It is said that Vuk Karadzic is one of the best children’s choir from Serbia. Can’t remember exactly now how they’ve sounded. Their performance was highly appreciated and they have been awarded with a third price by the jury.
Smilte is a girl youth choir from Kretinga, Lithuania. Haven’t seen anything bad coming from Lithuania so far. All it’s members love singing (and that was something visible) and care about the traditions of Lithuanian choir culture. Although being an amateur choir it managed to earn the gold medal in the choir competition held in 2009 in the Czech Republic.
Conductor Lilija Baksanskiene presented an assorted repertoire including works from Lithuanian composers as well as works from internationally known composers such as Schumann. The intense image of the choir and the joy of the girls in singing assured them the first prize as well.
Well, there are choirs who can perform great and deliver their repertoire in a perfect manner and then there are choirs that can do that and also entertain the audience. Because in the end music should be something that brings joy and happiness in us all.
Clearly, Ave Musica from Odessa, Ukraine has managed to do that with no problem. Conductor Sergii Savenko founded the choir in 2007 and won several prizes. I guess the surprise came from the soloist Tetiana Aleksandrova and the choosing of Behind our Barn by Volodymyr Zubitskiy. This song ended their performance and quickly became the favorite of the audience due to the amazing abilities of Tetiana to imitate domestic animals.

This song was also repeated in the evening of the award ceremony and also they have performed a negro spiritual song that from my opinion didn’t suit them perfectly. I mean the soloist is great but not for all genres of music. Despite that, they have won the first prize in the B category.

A great and pleasant surprise came from Youth Mixed Choir Stellatus from Szeged, Hungary. They have approached a difficult repertoire and although it didn’t reached a high level of expectation it will be appreciated that they’ve presented to the audience music that is not played often.

I’m referring to Eli! Eli! by Deak-Bardos Gyorgy and the modern approach of an Lacrymosa by Calixto Alvarez that can be heard below in the interpretation of another choir met in Debrecen a few years ago, University Choir from Mendoza of the UNCuyo, Argentina (these guys won the Bela Bartok Choir Competition with this song).

Despite the interesting program, Stellatus won the third price. We should also remember the soloist Eniko Jordanov, for the interpretation of Lacrymosa.

Ukraine got back on the stage afterwords, this time with the Youth Female Choir Oriana from Odessa. It seems there is a strong current of choral music in Ukraine, I have seen before many choirs coming from this country. Although they’ve sounded great Oriana is an amateur choir and was formed only in 2008. I guess much of the credit goes to their conductor Shpak Galina which by far I believe (and not only me) was the best conductor of the entire competition, although the prize went to conductor Sergii Savenko from Ave Musica.

The repertoire contained folk and religious music and it made a great image overall. They were awarded with a first price as well, letting Ukraine hold the top position in B category.

Remember I told you about conductor Aija Kukule from Children’s Choir Omnes? Well, she returned later that day with another choir. This time with Girl’s Youth Choir Omnes. I guess this is some kind of retirement plan for girls who grow up from Omnes Children. Just like Sound Choir who welcomes new members that have grown in the Romanian Children’s Choir Radio.
Well, you cannot admire Aija Kukule because she knows exactly want she wants. First she came with the kids choir and presented that great program and now comes again with a girl choir that would attract the view of everyone. The girls are great, not just pretty but also have nice, kind and sweet voices. Like I said there, I would woke up every morning with these girls singing to me but that’s just a dream. The repertoire was carefully chosen to match the girls soft voices and that assured them a first price in B category.

Mother Russia finally came to the stage and all the guys rushed to the front row with their cameras ready to capture every…note. Simply coded as Page 9, April choir was formed in Gatchina, Russia in 1998 by their present conductor Elena Smirnova along side Elena Voronez and Marina Kaplan.

What can I say, I liked the girls very much (and I will only limit myself to the choral issue). They had those expected Russian voices that could kick the cold winter breeze in a man’s heart at 40 degrees Celsius. I mean, I don’t think you will ever hear something bad coming from Russian choral music. They have this dramatic powerful voices that move the audience with simplicity. But something happened though in the case of April Choir and I guess that has to do with their repertoire. Not trying to avoid the issue, the chosen songs where boring. It made almost everyone become sleepy. The interpretation was great but there was to much drama and no action at all and it left me a bit sad. April won the second place in B category.
Growing in number under our eyes from song to song, Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities Choir (for short – Poland) came to present a mixed and long repertoire. The choir was formed in 2001 and performed at many concerts, festivals and competitions.

Conductor Ewa Mackiewicz, who has been with the choir since the beginning, has chosen between other songs, Il bianco e dolce cigno by Jacob Arcadelt and Ave Maria by Javier Busto, two great songs that came from two different aspects of music. You can hear Sound Choir below interpreting Ave Maria.

The choir was awarded with the third price in C category at the Ohrid Choir Festival 2010.
First romanian choir to take stage was Vox Humana from Sfantu Gheorghe. Well, maybe not quite from Romania 🙂 but still they’ve made a beautiful appearance at the Ohrid Choir Festival. They have chosen songs from Romanian composers as well as Hungarian composers. A balanced repertoire that suit them just perfectly, although the choir idea was to rush everything to it’s imminent dramatic end.

The long awaited Page 25, the Maennerstimmen Basel choir filled the stage after the well deserved break. It is a men choir from Switzerland and that says it all. Before coming to Ohrid I have checked the program and decided that these guys were my favorites. Me and the girls of course, who sigh in despair. I was attracted by their repertoire of course. Finally someone with some great songs. And the moment I saw Eric Whitacre in the program I sad, these guys must win! But I forgot that I was in a totally different ethnic and geographical position that is not used with this kind of music.
Although it had the best image and from my opinion the best sound as well, they were awarded only with the second prize and best interpretation of a contemporary song – Lux Aurumque by Whitacre. They’ve also enchanted us with the vocal interpretation of Mozart’s Ouverture to The Magic Flute and received many applause from the audience. I will have to personally thank these guys because they were accompanied by a TV crew the whole time. When they’ve returned home a TV appearance was shown on Swiss television including the Sound Choir as well. So far I believe this is the only TV appearance of Sound Choir regarding Ohrid Festival. No Romanian television was interested in… wait, what? Later with our results.
Another strong competitor was Cantica Nova from Milazzo, Italy. The choir, that did not made an impression in sound volume but in compact harmonics, presented through the conductor Francesco Saverio Messina a beautiful program, especially the last piece To The Mothers In Brazil by Lars Jansson. Great song, something to be added into the repertoire of every aspiring choir. Cantica Nova won the second prize in C category.


One of the strong competitors in this contest was Bel Canto from Vilnius, Lithuania. Again with the Lithuanians. Kind of a huge choir filled the stage and thunder and storm was supposed to begin but actually it sounded in perfect piano nuances when needed. This was clearly a choir of professional singers, if not, singers who had musical background. The group was formed in 2009 and consists of singers – members of other Lithuanian choirs.

Conductor Arturas Dambrauskas presented through his choir a powerful and yet sensitive program and in the end we were sure that they will take the Grand Prize. But they didn’t. They were awarded with the first prize in C category. Why is that? Well, there are some issues here as well. First of all, sometimes the piano nuances were so piano that if you were standing in the middle of the concert hall you couldn’t hear a thing. Second of all, the interpretation of the imposed song Rum Dum Dum was kind of ironic to the other participants. While singing they’ve also added a feet movement from left to right in order to prove the capabilities of this great choir. I don’t think that this actions was seen with good eyes.
The other only Romanian formation that I was able to barely witness was Vox Animi from Sighisoara. Could not say anything about them because I’ve only caught them in the end.
Other concerts were held in the town, when the choirs were asked to perform to the large public and also in the surrounding churches. It seems Ohrid has a large number of them. Probably larger than the population in a Sunday afternoon. Anyway, the choirs performed also their religious music program in Saint Sophie church and this was also something not to miss. But I’ve missed a lot unfortunately. The jury was also present at many of this religious concerts and it seems it counted in the final decision.
Overall the Festival seems to be very well organized and attractive to many choirs. Macedonia is indeed a beautiful place and must be marked on the travel map. Although it seemed to me as a poor country, the Macedonians are great people with common sense, and friendly. I don’t know if this only happens with tourists but considering the fact that they do not compare with other European countries in terms of economic stability and social education, they are very cool people and proud of their country.
If you decide to participate in the future editions of this competition you should take some things in consideration. Not everything was perfect about this event but that is just my opinion and not the choirs opinion. Actually I was pretty disappointed about some aspects. The organization was somehow unsatisfactory. The opening ceremony was not a ceremony at all comparing to other choir festivals around the world that I’ve been. All the choirs gathered inside the hotel without proper indications or following a specific ceremonial route. I think is good to have an opening ceremony because you can let people get to know each other from the start. One thing that really annoyed me was the fact that the organizer never spoke in English to the audience. I know almost everybody does that but I have a thing for one international language. Is pretty frustrating when you are trying to understand who won what, when all you can understand is the name of the choir. And let’s face it. Nobody waits for the English translation. Ok, let’s say these were the small things. You have to take in consideration also the accommodation. Of course, you never get to stay at Radisson while at a choir competition but the conditions here were very bad. Please be careful when you choose your staying and do take the advice from the organizers website. We have chosen in the end to stay at a hostel but the hostel turned out to be a student dormitory. The rooms were pretty bad with falling doors and disturbing bathrooms. No mirrors and bending mattresses. If you can stay in any conditions that’s ok, but if you want something normal I think you have to go with the most expensive choice and again, the site is correct in it’s information. And the hostel was not cheap even. We have to admit that the personnel who served us the meals every day were very friendly and we won’t forget them. And we will never forget the never ending cabbage salad. But like I said, this is my opinion and it reflected the overall impression compared to other similar experiences. And in some aspects I’ve seen much much worse than this. The important thing is that everyone had a great time. Ohrid can provide with several activities for entertainment and will never let you get bored. And nothing compares to a chilling late evening bath in the lake which is very very clean and perfect to swim.
But what about Sound Choir? Well, we have participated in this competition as well. We have arrived several days prior to the competition to the despair of our conductor Voicu Popescu who kept telling us to keep our voices in good condition and avoid water bathing. Of course we did the opposite, bathing all day and screaming jokes and songs late in the evening. We cannot sing otherwise. First day of the competition caught us only as spectators trying to see exactly what we were dealing with. And fast we have concluded that this was not an easy competition. The Swiss boys were taking all the girls. The Russian girls were competing with our girls and…wait, what? Let’s stick to the choir competition.
Voicu Popescu knows many things. And one of them is to choose a perfect repertoire. Mixed folk music and Javier Busto’s Ave Maria was supposed to impress the jury. We had rehearsed a lot and did not think we were going to win anything in the end. When the Maennersimmen boys told us that they have lost the competition we agreed that we did the same. And yet, Voicu Popescu told us that we should wear our costumes and the ending ceremony. Hmmm…. Speculations began to rise. What could this dis-functional, distracted and irresponsible choir could do with a pretentious jury in a competition of Slavonic nature?


The only thing they could do is win. And this is what we have done. Sound Choir from Romania managed to win the Grand Prix of this competition. How? We still wonder. Actually not. We like to sing and I guess that was seen by the jury. I remember in the night of the award ceremony we kept hearing the other choirs called on stage to be awarded. We were still dressed in our costumes and thought “how low can we get?”. I mean, we didn’t won anything. And that final moment came when they’ve finished all the prizes and the last one was called. The Grand Prix! And Zapro Zaprov, the president of the jury announced in Macedonian, Sound Choir as the winner. We nearly fainted and started screaming with joy. I guess the greatest moment was when we got up on stage and the other Romanian choirs started cheering Ro-Ma-Ni-A! Soon, all the other choirs did the same. The feeling was incredible! Hundreds of people cheering the name of your country. And I’m far from being a patriot. I mean I don’t know how many Romanians knew how we have represented their country that night? They were to busy discussing about politics and football. Two occupations in where we never seem to win anything at all. There are people who care, though. I mean, how do you think we got there? Running? Well, no. Actually we traveled with the newest bus that was purchased in Romania. And that takes some money to spend. And those money came from the people who care. And I’m talking about the Romanian Cultural Institute with their brilliant program developed for cultural projects in foreign countries and simply named Cantemir. Also, I should mention about Casa de Cultura a Studentilor (Students Cultural House) who offered appreciated support in this project and it’s also home for Sound Choir where rehearsals are held every week. But anyway, we all felt proud if not for patriotic reasons bur for our own reasons. Because we like to sing and we are happy with each other (bullshit, I don’t remember how many times we have argued between us but you don’t have to know that). In the end we have scored again and looking forward to the next competition to participate in. Hopefully, one day, our fellow citizens will be aware of our results and greet us with gratitude. ‘Til then we will keep on singing, make jokes and new friends.

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