The chords of vocal music vibrated loud and clear at Istanbul Boğaziçi University's four-day festival attended by youth choirs from all over Turkey, marking a first in the city and forging choral music into the hearts and minds of all ages.
"It was hard for us to get our hopes up because such events are rarely held in Turkey and for Istanbul this was a first. We had something in mind but didn't know what would happen," Burak Onur Erdem, coordinator of the choir festival "KoroFest," told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review in an interview. The festival took place April 15 to 19.
"What I always dreamed about was all the choirs uniting and singing together just like the ambiance on the closing night. It was really a touching moment," he said.
The festival, sponsored by the Istanbul 2010 European Capital of Culture Agency and organized by Boğaziçi University's Music Club, introduced the Istanbul audience to choirs from every corner of the country including Van 100th Yıl University Choir, Çanakkale 18 Mart University Choir and the youth choir of the Ankara-based Turkish Polyphonic Choirs Association.
"That was absolutely a wholly volunteer and even crazy initiative but we somehow felt the strength to realize the festival despite all the challenges," said Erdem.
Young members of guest choirs not only performed their own concert programs at Boğaziçi University's Albert Long Hall but also participated in workshops by conductors Bernd Spitzbarth of Germany and Elisanda Carrasco i Ribot of Spain, producing a joint repertoire for the closing night.
"Elisanda turned up to the workshop as soon as she landed at the Istanbul airport, gathered all the singers and pulled everyone into the world of music. I looked around and saw a mixture of choirs fully concentrated and uniting in song," he said.
Enthusiasm of young choir singers
Experienced musicians from Europe offered courses for choir members about vocal techniques and conductor training on the sidelines of KoroFest.
"Actually it is the first time I have been to Turkey. I came seven days before the festival to know the country and the second part of my journey was the festival. I am very surprised by the quality of some people who really led this festival and who made it happen. It was very important," Severine Delforge, representative of Europa Cantat, told the Daily News.
"I was so moved by the enthusiasm of the young participants."
Europa Cantat is a pan-European nonprofit organization dedicated to education and cultural exchange among young people in the field of vocal music. It represents more than one million and reaches out to more than 20 million singers, conductors and composers in over 40 European countries including new and future members of the European Union.
"I had no idea at all what was happening in Turkey about vocal music. I thought Turks only did folk songs but I have learned here that it is quite a young thing here in the country. There is no very long tradition like in Western Europe," said Delforge.
An estimated 270 choirs exist in Turkey where vocal music is not so common.
"The first step that needs to be taken is to increase the number of choirs," said Erdem. "The annual festival in Ankara undertaken by the Turkish Polyphonic Choirs Association is an event encouraging the creation of hundreds of choirs. We'd like to do the same here in Istanbul. Festivals are a source of motivation for choirs to prove their skills," he said.
"A lot of people come to Turkey for holidays. I head about Turkey especially for holidays and I am sure that many Western European people will love to come for a festival here if it is organized because they already know it is a beautiful country," said Delforge.
She highlighted that European organizations such as Europa Cantat were really eager to have Turkish musicians in the choral world. Europa Cantat organizes activities for choirs, young singers, conductors and composers on all levels from Europe and overseas.
For Delforge, small groups of musicians participating in training courses abroad to acquire more tools and then bringing their skills back to the country will help spread choir music.
Taste of Brahms
Participating choirs performed at elementary schools in Istanbul as well as in nursing homes. Another plus was their singing with foreign conductors allowing choir members of the festival the opportunity to get acquainted with Western pieces of music belonging to different periods.
"There are very talented conductors in Turkey who are experts in their field but working with foreign conductors was invaluable for young choir singers," said Erdem.
"While singing with [German conductor] Bernd Spitzbarth, choir members tasted Brahms. This is just like knowing how roses smell. From now whenever they hear a piece from Brahms, they will distinguish his music," he said. Johannes Brahms was a Romantic period German composer, pianist and conductor.
After the accomplishment at the first choir festival of Istanbul, eyes are now on the second to make such events a tradition. "Our intention is certainly to establish a tradition of choir festivals in Istanbul," said Erdem, giving the first news about next year's event. "I can say now that next year we'll do it again. This is only the beginning."