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Global Harmonies

Every three years, the planet's best choirs convene at the World Choral Symposium. In 2005, the event took place in Kyoto, Japan. Classical Minnesota Public Radio's Brian Newhouse was there. "The World Choral Symposium is the U.N. General Assembly of music," he says. Twenty-four choirs from around the world converged on Kyoto for eight days of performances.

St. Paul, Minn. - Throughout the month of June, Classical Minnesota Public Radio will broadcast a four-part "best-of-the-best" series called World Choral Spectacular 2006. Listeners may remember the first World Choral Spectacular series. That series was drawn from the 2002 World Choral Symposium, which was held in Minneapolis. "Four years ago," Newhouse recalls, "a lot of Minnesotans got introduced to the symposium in a real hands-on way. Now it will be fun for listeners to discover how the program developed, changed and took its next step by going to Japan."

The selections center on traditional choral singing that listeners will find familiar, but each program also holds delightful musical surprises; for instance, a haunting Islamic song from Turkey or an improvised Norwegian folk tune. The unifying factor throughout the series is quality: every one of these performances is breathtaking.

One of the highlighted performances is that of the Oslo Chamber Choir. The conductor, Grete Pedersen, studied Norwegian folk music and has been teaching the form to her choir for years. Pedersen encourages the choir to make up their own harmonies. The result is an impressive improvisational exercise based on a specific piece. "Once the tune is laid down," Newhouse says, "each singer riffs on it until the hall is filled with the most haunting sounds, and if you closed your eyes, you were half-a-world away by some blue-green fjord."

Newhouse was completely amazed at the San Miguel Master Chorale from the Philippines. "In my program booklet," Newhouse says, "I wrote 'WOW' across the page of only one choir, the San Miguel Master Chorale. They blew everyone away. They hit all the basics of great choral singing-excellent diction, phrasing, and a simple, gorgeous sound-but they also used vocal techniques that tap deep Filipino roots. For Western ears, it was thrilling-familiar and completely surprising at the same time."

Minnesota audiences will get first crack at hearing the highlights from the World Choral Symposium in June. In July, the program will be distributed nationally by American Public Media, the national production and distribution arm of Minnesota Public Radio.

"I hope listeners get to experience the global passion for choral music," he says. "The convergence of all those cultures and ethnicities is something to behold. There were fabulous performances from surprising places."

Listen Sundays, 1-2 p.m. on Classical Minnesota Public Radio stations or online.

(This article also appeared in the June 2006 "Plugged In" section of Minnesota Monthly.)