The Story of Missoula's International Choral Festival
Although the first International Choral Festival was presented in 1987, Professor Donald Carey began developing the vision of a non-competitive choral festival in Missoula years before. Carey was the conductor of The University of Montana Chamber Chorale when it participated in the Festival International de Chant Choral in Nancy, France in 1983. Two years later the Missoula Mendelssohn Club, a community men's chorus directed by Carey, toured Europe for the first time performing concerts in various countries. Impressed and inspired by the old-world hospitality that they received in France, Carey and the Mendelssohn Club choristers envisioned that perhaps Missoula could host an international choral festival of its own. Taking the first step toward realizing their dream, they began inviting world-class choral groups to Missoula.
Upon their return from Europe, organizers set the Festival date of July 1987 still not certain if the choirs would actually attend, or if local audiences would support such an event. That year organizers were elated when performing groups arrived from Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Latvia and Poland as well as the states of Minnesota, Montana and South Dakota. The fledgling International Choral Festival attracted more than enough host families, contributors, volunteers and audience members. In fact, the organizers were surprised when concert halls filled beyond their expectations, making it necessary to move the location of the gala concert from a high school gymnasium to the University of Montana's largest venue. It was apparent to all that the International Choral Festival must be repeated.
In 1989 the Festival became a non-profit organization governed by a volunteer board of directors. That same year, in light of changing global politics, it became clear that the International Choral Festival would represent more than just a musical event. The second Festival in July of 1990 helped to bridge political boundaries and audiences were moved when singers from Denmark, Estonia, Italy, Japan, Lithuania, Scotland, Uruguay, Oregon and Montana joined together. Also during this Festival, the famous entertainer Jester Hairston, known for his arrangements of Negro spirituals, was the special guest conductor at the Festival Finale Concert. The 1990 Festival drew an estimated audience of 25,000.
In July of 1993 hundreds of volunteers were involved in fundraising, housing guests, serving meals and planning concerts. Countries represented included Austria, Botswana, Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, South Korea, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico and Spain. Choirs from Arizona, Montana, Oregon, and Wyoming joined these groups, bringing the total number of singers to 750-the largest number of participants to date. Total concert attendance during the week was estimated at well over 30,000. A much-loved Missoula tradition by 1996, the Festival expanded its scope by attracting choirs from Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Hong Kong, South Korea, New Zealand, Poland, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand. Choirs from Washington State and Montana represented the United States, and enthusiastic audiences once again packed the concert venues.
2000 was a special year for the International Choral Festival. Due in large part to the hard work of Festival organizers, the renowned Cuban choir Coro Exaudi received permission to visit the U.S. for the first time. They joined choirs from Austria, Botswana, China, Denmark and Spain in addition to the states of Georgia, Montana, Oregon and Washington to comprise the fifth Festival. Another highlight of Festival 2000 was that, as part of the millennium celebration, the American Composers Forum awarded a grant to the Festival for an original composition to conclude the Festival's finale concert. Composer and conductor William McGlaughlin was selected for the commission, and the composer himself conducted the world premier of Walt Whitman's Dream, featuring full orchestra and a combined Festival chorus of 730 singers.
The world changed dramatically the following year with the tragic events of September 11, 2001, and Festival organizers became worried that safety concerns and the resulting new immigration restrictions might hinder choirs from making the journey to Missoula. Contrary to their concerns, they were pleasantly surprised to receive over 150 applications for participation in the 2003 Festival. This surprisingly high volume of interest resulted in the Artistic Committee's decision to extend a greater number of invitations than it had in the past. A new record was set as the Festival hosted nineteen groups from Austria, Bulgaria, Canada, Colombia, Finland, Latvia, Malaysia, Peru, Slovakia, South Korea, Spain, Taiwan and the states of Montana, North Carolina, Oregon, and Washingtonthe greatest number of groups in its history.
The increased interest has proven that the International Choral Festival has now become known throughout the world for its excellence and hospitality. Having evolved from its grassroots beginnings into a prestigious international event, Missoula's International Choral Festival remains a flagship for choral festivals worldwide.