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Vocal Colours

Luis Dias

Child’s Play India Foundation (www.childsplayindia.org) completes a decade of its existence in 2019-2020! We’d like to really celebrate this significant milestone.

We begin the celebrations with a benefit concert by Vocal Colors, an a capella choral ensemble from Sweden.

In October 2014, I was one among 150 delegates from 28 countries (and the only one from India) chosen to participate in the first of its kind, a four-day International Sistema Teachers’ Conference organised by Sistema Scotland in Stirling. It offered me a unique opportunity to meet like-minded individuals also committed to music education and social empowerment, from a wide range of locations around the world: Australia, Austria, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Lithuania, Netherlands, New Zealand, Romania, Scotland, Serbia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates, USA, Venezuela, Vietnam and Wales.

Among that vast community of nations, the Swedish contingent stood out pretty prominently. They kept breaking spontaneously into song at every opportunity, and their infectious enthusiasm got the rest of us singing as well.

This is where I first met Cecilia Öhrwall from El Sistema Södertälje, close to Stockholm, Sweden. She already had a connection with India, and had been visiting and working with a music school in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. She was planning a return trip to India the following year and suggested visiting us at Child’s Play India Foundation in Goa.

Her Sångföreningen Qöhr has since sung two benefit concerts for Child’s Play, in 2016 and 2018, to packed audiences, and she and her choir members have infused some of their enthusiasm to our children who participated in their workshops during their visits.

It is through Öhrwall that we are now welcoming yet another choir from Sweden, Vocal Colors.

Vocal Colors is a newly-minted vocal ensemble that sings a-cappella music of all genres. The warm-hearted, music-loving and well-trained young singers come from all over Sweden and gather for repetitions five weekends a year. In its second season, it embarks on its first international tour, with a benefit concert in Goa for Child’s Play India Foundation.

‘A cappella’ literally means ‘in the manner of the chapel’ in Italian, and is today used to refer to singing by an individual or group without accompaniment, or to music performed in this fashion.

The term which was coined as a cappella music originally referred to religious music sung in church. Jewish and Christian music were originally a cappella. Today a cappella music embraces all periods, styles and genres, ranging from sacred music, to pop, jazz, barbershop and more.

The European a cappella tradition is especially strong in the countries around the Baltic and perhaps most so in Sweden as described by American choral conductor Richard Andrew Sparks (b 1950) in his doctoral dissertation on postwar Swedish choral music (‘Swedish A Cappella Music since 1945’, University of Cincinnati, 1997), later published as ‘The Swedish Choral Miracle’ in 2000.

Swedish a cappella choirs have over the last quarter of a century won around one-fourth of the annual prestigious European Grand Prix for Choral Singing (EGP) that despite its name is open to choirs from all over the world.

There are several reasons for the strong Swedish dominance in choral singing in general. It has been estimated that as many as 6 to 7 per cent of the Swedish population regularly sing in choirs. To put it differently, 600,000 Swedes are estimated to have an active involvement in choirs (2014) out of a population of just nine million.

The Swedish choral director and influential choral teacher Eric Gustaf Ericson (1918 – 2013) had an enormous impact on a cappella choral development not only in Sweden but around the world.

Ericson went to study medieval music at the Schola Cantorum in Basel, Switzerland for a year and returned with a vision: a return to the music of the Middle Ages, but also those same vocal ideals. A pure, non-vibrato sound and line that would allow voices to blend perfectly, and allowing the collective body of sound to be moulded and shaped by the conductor as though it were one composite instrument.

After he took over the leadership of the Swedish Radio Choir in 1952, he took its level of excellence to such heights that it attracted the world’s great composers of the time, from Paul Hindemith, Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland to Luigi Dallapiccola and GyörgyLigeti, to say nothing of home-grown Swedish composers such as Lars Edlund, Ingvar Lidholm and Sven-Erik Bäck.

To quote Swedish arts journalist, critic, presenter and radio and TV producer Sofia Nyblom: “Eric Ericson’s work with choral singing is emblematic of the strength of a democratic society: pluralism of expression and submission under the vision of unanimity. It has certainly provided the hotbed for the stars of one of our major exports – music – and continues to provide a source for rejuvenation and creativity.”

Another significant reason that choral singing finds such fertile soil in Sweden is the fact that there are a large number of very popular primary and secondary schools (music schools) with high admission standards based on auditions that combine a rigid academic regimen with high level choral singing on every school day, a system that started with Adolf Fredrik’s Music School in Stockholm in 1939 but has since spread throughout the country.

The founders and musical leaders of Vocal Colors are the nationally awarded conductors Marie Bejstam and Charlotte Rider. They both lead several choirs in the Stockholm area. Together they also run a culture house, Kulturfyren (the Culture Lighthouse) which they founded in the central of the capital eight years ago. Marie and Charlotte are also often called upon to lecture and teach at the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm.

 

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