Prof. Dr. Ralf Eisenbeiß, Germany © Nolte Photography
World Choir Games 2020

"250 newly composed works have premiered"

Artistic Director Prof. Dr. Ralf Eisenbeiß about 20 years of World Choir Games

Since its very beginnings, Prof. Dr. Ralf Eisenbeiß is the Artistic Director and co-founder of the World Choir Games. In 2020 it's 20 years that he's been working for the event, which has established as the largest international choir competition in the world. We talked with him about the event, artistic decisions, and his personal experiences of the last 20 years. 

You have been part of the team since the 1st World Choir Games (former Choir Olympics) in Linz 2000 as the Artistic Director of the event. How has the event evolved since then?
The idea of bringing the Olympic ideals to life and cultivating them in the context of a large international choir event inspired choirs from all over the world right from the start. The event grew with each new edition. We as the organizers had to learn how to cope with different cultures and traditions in different countries and we had to adapt our World Choir Games to the respective situations. That was a great challenge every time, which required all our strength on all organizational levels. But the success always increased and so the "Games" could become the most attractive event of INTERKULTUR.

The World Choir Games offer up to 29 different competition categories every two years. Which of these have always been the most popular?
In particular, the numerous categories for Children's and Youth Choirs are always much acclaimed. At the same time, Sacred Choral Music and Folklore categories are in great demand as well as the Pop categories. Over the years, however, there have also been some nice new developments. For example, the category of Senior Choirs is favored a lot as well as Musica Contemporanea.

At every World Choir Games there are slight changes in the selection of categories. For example, in 2014 the category "Senior Choirs" was introduced, in 2016 the category "University and College Choirs" was added. For the World Choir Games 2020 it was decided to divide the category "Musica Contemporanea" into "Choirs with equal voices" and "Choirs with mixed voices" in contrast to previous years. On what basis and why are such decisions taken?
Since the World Choir Games uphold a universal Choir Olympic claim, we want to present the diverse possibilities of singing as representatively as possible. We observe choral developments very closely and decide which categories will make sense and which will not. We are also very interested in including the singing customs of the host cities in the composition of the categories. Thus every World Choir Games is tailored to the specific situation in the host country. In Cincinnati, for example, we included barbershop choirs in the program and in Korea in 2002, the hosts wanted to see family choirs in the program. We have reacted to this. However, the basic structure of our event always remains the same.

The category "Musica Contemporanea" at the World Choir Games gives young composers of the present the opportunity to be performed on a large stage. What can we expect from the host country Belgium and the host region Flanders in 2020 with regards to this category?
First of all, each choir usually has one or more composers it prefers and who write new pieces on this special occasion and dedicate this premiere to the World Choir Games. This is why the category of contemporary choral music is as colorful and diverse as the choirs are themselves. We also expect many groups from the host region. Belgium and the Netherlands have a very lively choir scene including many active composers. This means that there will certainly be a focus on such new works. And by the way, there will also be many world premieres in other categories. This way about 250 newly composed works, most of them on an outstanding level, have premiered since the first event in 2000.

What is your personal favorite category? Why?
Actually, I do not favor any specific category. Everything is good, the youthful freshness of the children's choirs, the powerful sound of a good men's choir, the fine music making of smaller chamber choirs, the colorful folklore and the rousing pop choirs. Everything is fun and presented at the highest level. And sometimes it even happens at the end of a concert that the international jury leaves the hall with tears in their eyes because the choir sung so excellently. These are the best moments and then category does not matter anymore.

Which advice would you give to participating choir regarding the selection of their competition program at the World Choir Games?
The conductor must plan the repertoire well. He or she should prepare an interesting program that emphasizes the choir's strengths and shows what the choir is able to achieve. He needs to know how to impress the jury and other participants. That is why the dramaturgy is extremely important, even if only four pieces will be sung. The program needs color and this can also be realized by the different character of the works. There should be quiet moments of beautiful and intoxicating sounds as well as lively, rhythmically gripping, furious and cheerful works. To put it in a nutshell: the choir must impress. It is up to the choir to decide how it will realize this aim.

In addition to the competitions, the World Choir Games always offer participating choirs possibilities for encounters e.g. at friendship concerts and joint performances, e.g. at the big international Stage Choir Festival. Why is this important?
The World Choir Games are the Olympics of choral singing and this does not apply only to the competitions. When thousands of singers from about 80 countries come together, they naturally want to show what they are able to do. They want to get in touch with other choirs, sing together, hear the best choirs in Celebration Concerts and just have fun. All this and much more can be enjoyed during the 10 days of the festival.

What is the best moment for you at every World Choir Games?
I gladly admit that the moment during the Choir Olympic Ceremony, when the participating countries march in and are welcomed by the thundering applause of the audience and the Choir Olympic flag is raised, is the most emotional moment for me. Two years of hard preparatory work for the great INTERKULTUR team reach its climax at that moment and so does the joy about experiencing once again the most innovative international choir event of the last decades. But just as touching is the enthusiasm of the singers when they receive their medals. Joy has no limits.

Which situation of the past World Choir Games years do you remember in particular?
This is not easy to answer, there are so many. A choir from Afghanistan came to Sochi, and it was located in an area where music and any music making was forbidden. There, music has been unknown for generations. These young people had somehow heard of the Choir Games, secretly learned notes, rehearsed a program and fulfilled a lifelong dream by participating in the "Games". Our Choral Olympic motto is "Participation is the highest honor" and this example illustrates the power of music against all odds. That makes you happy. But this is only one of many impressive episodes.

Prof. Dr. Ralf Eisenbeiß © Kaspars Garda / Riga 2014