Cork International Choral Festival moves online... so what can we expect

Cork International Choral Festival Artistic Director, Peter Stobart, writes about this year’s online festival and how it was born out of a 66-year choral tradition.
Cork International Choral Festival moves online... so what can we expect

Cork International Choral Festival Artistic Director, Peter Stobart. Picture: Clare Keogh 

AS with any musical enterprise, the audience experience is key, and not least in this period when opportunities to experience live music are so limited.

The traditional clientele of Cork International Choral Festival largely comprises audiences from the local Cork population but also attendees from those choirs visiting us and their members who are participating in some way. These two cohorts have a very different demographic; one tends to be older than the other, their cultural backgrounds are likely to be very different and therefore their knowledge of music and of singing is diverse.

Programming in order to please everyone is a very hard thing to do and is one of the biggest challenges facing the festival. The broad repertoire of the evening gala concerts has always tried to bridge this chasm with traditional choral society repertoire, new works and performances by smaller a cappella groups.

It is often said that the attention span of young people is shorter than it has ever been, and social media platforms such as Twitter and TikTok limit the number of typed characters and the length of posted videos. This goes some way to compounding the problem however, and like the chicken and the egg, which one is the cause and which the effect?

One year ago, music organisations found themselves putting out recordings of past concerts as a substitute for the lack of live events, and also making the decision to produce new online concerts when it became clear that the virus was here to stay. The Choral Festival has mixed the two this year; both Chamber Choir Ireland and Resurgam will be giving new concerts broadcast from St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, and OnAir and Anúna have compiled material from their archives, most of which has not been seen before.

The Festival has been a strong supporter of current artists in all media and has commissioned an enormous amount of new work. In terms of music there is a substantial body of new composition in the archive, and there are many famous names to be found, including Howells and Tavener, and more recently, Gerald Barry, John Buckley and Michael McGlynn. This year sees the premiere of Amanda Feery’s new work Longwave which imaginatively uses text from the shipping forecast, and she joins the list which happily includes more than a few female composers including Rhona Clarke, Nicola LeFanu and Eibhlis Farrell. Hopefully the time will come when there will be no need to point this out.

There is a long history of commissioning trophies for the National Competitions from Irish artists, and these have tended to be in the form of paintings or sculptures rather than in the traditional trophy shape.

This year a new competition was launched in which choirs made up of work colleagues are competing for the title of Workplace Choir of the Year. A new trophy was therefore needed, and The Irish Handmade Glass Company was asked to come up with an appropriate design. The result is based on the theme of the tree of life, and an analogy is depicted between a tree and its fruit and offices and their workers. It symbolises togetherness and working for the common good, which is exactly what singing in a choir does.

Of course, it is not just the workplace that has developed the virtual choir. Over the last year, the concept has become widespread, and the need for existing groups to keep singing even when they are not sharing the same space has pushed technology to try and keep up with the demand. To sing live over an internet connection is not currently possible as ultimately the varying speed of broadband is letting us down. Whilst platforms do exist to enable collaboration with others in real time, it is futile to make the attempt if there is even the slightest delay in the connection. The solution has been to make videos and combine recordings from individuals, trying to make them sound as if they might have been sung in the same room. The festival has recognised that this is the current state of collaborative singing and has adjusted its competition rules to reflect the situation. The medium of the video gives a new range of possibilities and the judges have a new set of criteria by which to make their assessment.

Conductors have necessarily learnt to become technicians and have spent hours listening to and editing video and audio material. It has never been easier to learn in the wider sense too, and with the abundance of online events at the moment this statement is even more relevant.

The festival has always taken the opportunity to have experts in their fields running workshops or seminars during the Festival week. A musician never stops learning, whether it be about good singing technique, conducting technique, or choir management and expanding the repertoire. This year the online seminars will be on Diversity in Choral Music and on voice production led by Eimear McCarthy Luddy from Vocology Ireland. It is hoped that the online nature of these will increase participation and eagerness to know more.

This year’s festival is certainly going to be different but we would encourage audiences to tune in and join in and we hope that viewers will see what Cork has to offer this year and will be compelled to visit us in person when the situation next allows.

For the full programme and to book tickets for this year’s Cork International Choral Festival which takes place online from April 28 to May 2 see

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