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MS: How did the International Youth Choir Festival come about? What inspired you to launch the event? Does it reflect a personal ambition? How long have you been planning it?

GB: I am led to believe that 'UK choral excellence' is a worldwide export but every time I travel abroad to work with choirs or adjudicate at festivals, or have a good look around YouTube at choral performances across the world, I am reminded how much UK choirs could learn from the choral traditions of other nations, including those traditions in some of the most far-flung, poverty-stricken and even war-torn areas of the world. IYCF is partly about taking that word 'excellence' and redefining it: examining what truly makes an outstanding performance which can captivate an audience.


MS: How did you choose the choirs? Tell us about them.

GB: The choirs were all hand-selected from extensive research which started back in early 2015. Some are champions of their national choral repertoire. Some focus on the healing power of music to help bridge local community divisions caused by prejudice and inequality. Some, as you will see, can even show the way to reconciliation in societies affected by profound historical conflict. All have a mission and all have interesting stories to tell.

The singers of the Boston Children's Chorus aim to break down social barriers through a celebration of shared humanity and love of music, with a membership drawn from the broad spectrum of economic conditions in Boston. We chose the choir for IYCF as a shining example of how to bring together a diverse range of people across a major city to encourage social change.

Built on an essentially British Public School model in the 1860s, Hong Kong Diocesan Boys School of Hong Kong boasts one of the finest choirs for changing and changed boys voices in the world. Their schooling is academically rigorous and culturally rich and is a great example of the interdependency of these factors.

Also from Asia, the Manado State University Choir represents not only the country of Indonesia but – in a more complex sense – new directions in choral music worldwide: they re-imagine choral music as a convergence of cultures expressed in drama, dance and song. The group builds improvisation and experimentation into their music, which spans the entire Western canon, South East Asian choral music and popular music - and their choreography is mesmerising!

We have two choirs from Northern Europe (aside from NYCGB, of course). The Norwegian National Youth Choir consists of 40 young people aged 16-26 from across the country. Their repertoire is vast, covering 500 years of choral music and with a particular focus on folksongs of Scandinavia. They have been selected for IYCF 2017 to demonstrate the excellence and popularity of Scandinavian singing which is the envy of the choral world. The Riga Cathedral Boys' Choir was first established in Latvia in 1950. Since 1994, the boys have been part of the Riga Dom Choir School, and we chose them fo demonstrate the potential of unchanged voices. The choir consists of around 40 boys and 15 professional male singers.

The Sawa Choir is a group of young female voices based in Israel. A relatively new choir, this ensemble was set up to bring together Israeli Jews and Palestinians in a safe and respectful musical environment with no internal religious or ideological borders. Sawa choir have been selected for IYCF17 to illustrate the power of music to cultivate open-mindedness and bridge communities in direct conflict.



Mzansi Youth Choir from South Africa is one of eight choirs taking part in IYCF 2017

Hailed as the best performing choir in South Africa, Mzansi Youth Choir create opportunities for talented underprivileged young South Africans in the world of entertainment. They uniquely package South African music, commissioning new compositions and educate their members and audiences about the many diverse musical genres in the country.


MS: What do you want the different participants to gain from the event – the choirs, choral directors who are attending conference sessions and the audiences?

GB: The choirs get the chance to make music together and experience each others' brilliance! They have the opportunity to perform on the two of the greatest stages, the Royal Albert Hall and the Royal Festival Hall, rehearse at Chelsea FC (who are generously supporting the festival), take part in pop-up performances and Easter Day services, all against the backdrop of the greatest city in the world!

The IYCF Conference delegates will be able to attend workshops and seminars which give them skills and inspiration plus methods of either kick-starting activity in their school or local community or taking their existing activity to the next level. All delivered by leading experts from the UK and abroad.

The audiences get to experience outstanding performances from the individual choirs on Easter Saturday at the 'A Celebration of World Voices' concert at the Royal Albert Hall, and then a once-in-a-lifetime chance to hear the 450-voice super-choir, as the eight choirs come together at 'Global Voices' in a performance of Jonathan Dove's Cantata, There was a child, with the Southbank Sinfonia and a stellar line up of soloists at the Royal Festival Hall.


MS: What's different about IYCF compared to other choir festivals?

GB: IYCF is responding to the reality that youth choral practice is a specialism which needs specialist attention. With the government's welcome encouragement of teachers to set up singing activity in their schools comes the call for focussed learning in this area. Also, an increase in community singing (thanks to an upsurge in media interest) means that there are even more leaders requiring training. IYCF delves more deeply into this area than any other UK choral festival.

 
MS: What do you think choirs and choral directors in the UK can learn from international groups and colleagues?

GB: That technique is the servant and not the master. Although there is certainly virtue in our UK traditions of good sight-reading, spotless tuning and well-blended sounds, these shouldn't be favured above sincerity, communication, heart, understanding and an honest desire, by performing, to make the world a better place.

 
MS: How is IYCF financed? Has it been difficult to find the money, given the current economic environment?

GB: The IYCF is a joint venture between the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain and the Royal Albert Hall and so is being jointly financed. Together, we cover all performing expenses, accommodation and ground transportation to help ensure that the choirs are able to come. This means lots of fundraising has to go on in the background which requires a lot of careful thought, planning and coordination. Because we are gathering so many young people from across the world it means we are able to think more widely about who might like to offer support. This is certainly the case with Chelsea FC, who have generously offered to host the choirs and Southbank Sinfonia for our rehearsals on Easter Sunday, providing all meals and even tours of the stadium!


MS: How does IYCF integrate with NYCGB's core activities?

GB: NYCGB aims to discover exceptional musical talent, provide inspirational teaching and guidance, create exceptional performance opportunities, enthuse young people in the joy of singing and advocate outstanding cultural leadership. In the last ten years it has increased its outward-facing role, trying to find ways of adding value to choral activities around the world. IYCF is a direct result of this.


MS: Do you have plans for any follow-up activities (e.g. international tours) after the event?

GB: We certainly hope to forge stronger links with our invited choirs and this may lead to ideas for touring. The National Youth Choir has just completed a tour to China and we are always looking for the next interesting touring idea to come along.


MS: Will IYCF become a regular event in the choral calendar?

We are very excited about the programme we have created for IYCF and if the response from choirs, delegates and audience is what we hope, then I'm sure we'll be seeing it again. But right now, we are all eyes on April 2017!