There are no rivals at this competition, only friends – interview with conductor Gábor Hollerung

World festival, competition, gala and a stunning experience of classical music… in one? Yes, this is a real thing, coming soon in the Müpa Budapest between May 18 and 21, and it’s called the International Choral Celebration. Thousands of people will turn up at several locations and concerts – professional and amateur choirs, orchesters, competitors, bystanders and the audience, all having one thing I common: they love choral music. How can such a gigantic event can be organized and what will happen in these four days? Conductor Gábor Hollerung answered my questions.

Looking at the programme of the Choral Celebration, I feel that something happens every single minute. What should we expect from it?

The Choral Festival has two aims: to show great productions of choral music, and to celebrate the joy of singing together. Choirs also like to get some feedback on their work; this is why we organize a competition as well. On the first day, we are opening the festivities with a concert featuring high quality choirs, some invited by us, and some voluntary contributors.

The competitions start on Saturday with approximately thirty choirs on board, coming from all parts of the world. There will be a qualifier for everyone, with the best ones competing for a Grand Prix. On the same day, The Real Group, the Jazzation and the Sjaella will be playing in the Budapest Congress Center, so the Choral Festival contains an a cappella jazz party alongside the classical pieces. In the meantime, rehearsals for the biggest event, the Messiah, will be held, so that we can present it two times during Pentecost. In the Müpa, choirs will sing not only on stages, but practically everywhere in the building. An unstoppable stream of live music.

On Sunday, there will be a children’s event, then a V4 gala concert featuring Czech, Slovak, Polish and Hungarian choirs, and the competition will continue as well. The Midnight Voices is an extraordinarily charming programme with light show, songs about light and shadow, and involving everyone in a big common singing. On Monday, we celebrate the winners of the competition with a gala show and an awards ceremony.

This Celebration has a long tradition: we started in 1986 with the Let the country sing musical camps and concerts, at first with youth choirs and nowadays with every age group possible. This year, seven hundred people are expected to the camp the weekend before the event, where we are going to work on the Messiah in two and a half days, putting the piece together from lots of individually prepared choirs.

How can you choose the best choirs at a competition? How can you involve competing with an event promoting joint singing?

I am the guilty one who brought the two together. Back then, my choir won lots of competitions in the eighties, but I didn’t really like the impact of these events on choir music. It worked with juries giving a first, second and third prize and all the others had to go home disappointed. We held the first competition in 1988 with no first, second and third prizes, but Golden, Silver and Bronze Diplomas, so that everyone gets some feedback and acknowledgement. This made choirs not to compete against each other, but supporting and enjoying each other’s work. If a competition has ten participants, all great, then nothing prevents the jury from distributing ten Golden Diplomas. OK, it’s still not that realistic, but it can indeed happen. The new system had a great impact on the success and motivation of choirs, and the number of participants increased year by year, just like the local support for choirs. They all got some positive feedback, even if it was their very first competition.

Back to the Choral Celebration: we invited seven or eight choirs, but at least thirty others expressed their willingness to participate. Some come for the competition and contribute to the Messiah, or they give a gala concert. They are all part of a big common joy, but they also receive feedback on their efforts. The old veterans of competitions run for the Grand Prix, but I can personally guarantee that nobody will feel like a loser, regardless of level and professional background. We sing for each other, for the audience, we dissolve in a great work of art. This is our festival.

How about the Messiah? How many people contribute?

There are ten to twelve full choirs and additional singers from other thirty to forty choirs. For each concert, 360 people can be on stage. Some boys have to sing twice, because the men’s choir is slightly smaller than the womens’. This means a total of 700 people who sing together, 100 foreigners and 600 Hungarians.

Isn’t it hard to coordinate such a huge amount of people?

This is the thirty-third time, so I’m already used to it. Let the country sing become a cultic event, choirs literally compete for joining, and the application list for the May camp and concerts was already full in October. Each choir practices on its own; we organize weekly rehearsals for the Budapest-based ones from February until May. So by the time the camp starts, Messiah will be in an advanced state already. From Friday evening to Sunday afternoon, we have five rehearsals, and the talent of each choir is suddenly multiplying. This group has an exceptionally hard will and we already have an experienced hardcore team – we could also present the very difficult Cantata Profana some years ago.

So classical music resupplies itself through the ecstatic joy of the camp and the concerts. Choir members love music so much that they raise their children in this manner. In this year’s camp, 80 to 100 members of the camp are children who will have their own musical games and challenges, presenting their own show in front of the adults on the last day.

Who will sing at the gala concerts?

There will be amateur and professional choirs. The a cappella jazz show will feature three professionals. Most of the amateurs whom we invited were found at international choir competitions, this is how we came to a Polish, a Croatian and a Slovakian choir. It’s also not the same if an amateur choir is already experienced with competitions and runs for the Grand Prix, or it just joined its first qualifying competition here and now. But it’s still true that audience will meet the best choirs of the world at our festival. The Choral Celebration shows lots of different variants of choral singing, from region to region, continent to continent, country to country, culture to culture. It shows the most beautiful and engaging face of choral music. I hope it will leave its mark in the hearts of all visitors and contributors.