Picture courtesy: Buhusuru Ranasinghe and the Media Unit of Royal College

On Friday, October 2, at Bishops College Auditorium, there was a celebration of choir-singing and choir-tradition, an encounter between audience and recitation which would have jarred, but didn’t. The Western Music Society of Royal College put together and presented ‘Festival of Choirs’. Eight schools participated. Everyone sang. Some danced. No one improvised. To perfection? Almost.

The event-label was spot on, in particular for what it embodied. ‘Festival’ precludes judgment and a final verdict that can and does impede on talent. There was a talent-unbuckling. No one presided. No one flaunted. Everyone had a role. From every group. It was all about “the collective”. Rightly.

west-end.jpgWhat unfolded thereafter was a celebration of taste and colour. True, as a show “aimed at” Colombo it could have succumbed to insularity. It didn’t. Instead what we saw was repudiation of individuality and an embracement of variety. But for this, two things had to factor in. The show had to be synchronised well, and it had to interweave past and present.

Was that what happened? Certainly. The arrangement was planned excellently, and because of that what transpired from one performance to the other seemed smoothly preconceived.

“Festival of Choirs” opened with Verdi, exemplifying choir-tradition head-on. “Va, pensiero” after all is made for choir-recital and Royal College rendered it plaintively (and fittingly, given that it was the organiser). Those who had heard it before and even those who hadn’t would have been transfixed, so harrowing was the recital. It paved the way for the rest of the night, hovering between past and present, high and low, tenor and bass.

From “Footloose” (performed by Elizabeth Moir) to Billy Joel (Royal College) and from “Master Sir” (Asian International) to “Living on a Prayer” (Wesley College), there was a frequent travelling-back-and-forth without wallowing in the “then” or “now”. No one looked unfamiliar with what they were doing. No one faltered. Granted, there were voices that rang out and some that could be heard above the rest. But not once did that dilute the collective-thrust which dominated the evening.

Everyone had been briefed well, by the way, and here the teachers played a part. Big time. Not every school was “accompanied”, true, but whenever they were the student/teacher divide blurred. Wesley College’s choir-mistress in particular sang along with the children. She made them drop inhibition, injecting verve into a couple of songs which demanded energy and nothing but. Not surprisingly, she stood apart. Noticeably.

The show didn’t only teeter between past and present. It also bridged tradition and culture. To make things all the more vibrant everyone coupled music with movement, a “needed” even when recital was paramount and everything else was frill. People sang, yes. That didn’t stop them from emoting though, and that without losing track of whatever was being played out.

And here the venue helped. Bishops College Auditorium doesn’t stretch. It’s structured to bring audience and performer(s) together. For a musical show of this sort, that’s needed. Whatever was played therefore caught on with a crowd that was a microcosm of the “out there” and “beyond”: old, young, middle-aged, appreciative of past and present, and willing to embrace the new without forgoing the old.

So how did the performances fare? “Festival of Choirs” was (as mentioned before) not geared at verdicts given through arbitrary judgment. There were no winners and losers. There was instead talent-unbuckling, and on that score no one went overboard. True, there was passion. Enough and more. That didn’t license energy-overflow though. Thankfully therefore, everyone showed restraint. And grace.

As the show moved on however, that restrained almost shattered. A largely Western medley gave way to a more “regional” and “modern” track. That congealed into a transition from “classical” to “plebeian”. The performers did this subtly, even if this meant (as was pointed out before) a deviation from the original program (as per the souvenir). Without that, the shift from restraint to openness would have jarred. Badly.

In this context “other factors” weighed in. The performers never showed what they had gone through for the finale. The presenters (Imaadh Dole and Shechem Sumanthiran) interjected commentary without becoming an adjunct to the show, while the audience clapped when applause was wanted and were overwhelmed when they needed to be. There were those who couldn’t make it, whose absences were regretted openly. But they were acknowledged and thanked enough to make it seem as though they were looking on, well and truly present.

As the performances drew to a close everyone got together. The senior members of the participating schools showed solidarity by performing a number. Together. There was no need for tributes, hence. No need to insert adjectives and award-adornment. Solidarity was what counted. And ultimately, what triumphed. In a festival that stuck by its label. Truly.

Before he wrote of insanity and long before he himself became insane, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote of music. He contended that music threw out man’s individuality and instead championed the union of man with man through the human condition, filled with joy and suffering. His theory, studied by music lovers for ages to come, was that music embodied the collective. He didn’t “assess” choirs, but he might have found in their unyielding solidarity a confirmation of that same argument.

“Festival of Choirs” echoed this. Subtly. It inhabited a twilight between trial and perfection. Everyone exuded harmony, and rightly so. Royal College moreover affirmed Nietzsche’s joy-and-suffering duality and that by ending their souvenir with a quote by Victor Hugo: “music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent”. After all, what more inexpressible thing is there, which music cannot ignore, than the human condition?

Royal College must be congratulated. They created and sustained a show unhampered by talent-verdicts. True, everyone sang and danced. True, there was talent there. But those who thronged to see the show heard and saw what “came out”. Those claps weren’t decor, after all. They were free of frill. Genuine. As such awards weren’t needed. At all.
There was sanity, hence. And contentment. Everywhere.