Lebanon’s Al Fayha Choir features a cappella singers ages 16 to 40 Image Credit: www.bilalelsoussi.com

ChoirFest Middle East, the annual festival celebrating the rich diversity of choral music in the region, is returning with its third edition from March 1 to 5. This year, more than 2,000 singers are taking part in the festival, of whom 1,400 are pupils from primary and secondary schools.

Choirs in the UAE and Middle East will get an opportunity to raise awareness about their vast repertoire through a series of concerts and competitions, and participants as well as visitors can also attend various workshops with leading Swedish a cappella quintet, The Real Group, as well as the UK’s leading baritone Phillip Smith and conductor Sarah Tenant-Flowers.

“This is the group’s first visit to the region. We are very excited to meet new audiences and hopefully inspire singers from the Middle East. We are also looking forward to hearing some world music and arrangements from [the participating choirs],” said Helena Roos, The Real Group’s manager.

“We have led many workshops over the years, and in Dubai we will share our thoughts and best advice on bringing out the best [in everyone]. We hope to inspire choirs and singers. One thing we always share is the importance of positive reinforcement ... and explain why we think that is a great method,” she added.

The Real Group, which released 22 albums over 30 years and thrilled audiences at more than 2,000 live performances around the world, are also set to treat ChoirFest Middle East fans to their first concert in the UAE on March 4.

“We are looking forward to performing in Dubai. We have visited a number of music festivals and also hosted a number of different festivals ... [in] South Korea, Italy, Sweden and Åland, for example. Even though there can be similarities all are of course also unique. It is the people who make every festival unique, special and exciting,” Roos said.

Music fans will get a chance to admire the diverse vocal styles of choirs — ranging from school to those comprising amateur and professional choral singers — at various venues, including The Fridge and the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. Among them are a series of concerts by Al Fayha Choir, which features a cappella singers, aged 16 to 40, from Lebanon.

“We have performed in the UAE, including Dubai, before but this is the first time we are taking part in ChoirFest Middle East. We are looking forward to seeing our fans again and hopefully making some new ones, while getting to know singers from other choirs,” said mezzo-soprano Roula Abou Baker, the group’s manager.

“These events are very important for choirs such as ours because they help us raise awareness about ourselves as well as the region’s rich musical history and heritage. Even though we have organised successful events in Lebanon and the UAE, it feels as if we are better known in Europe. We have achieved so much over the years, including winning prestigious awards, and we are always searching for ways to share that with audiences at home and the Middle East in general,” she added.

Nada Jwehan, the conductor’s assistant of Amaan Choir, agrees. “We are better known in Germany than here ... on one hand, that is a great way to raise international awareness about choirs in the Middle East and act as peace-building ambassadors, on the other, we need to raise our profiles within our own communities. This would help to encourage those passionate about singing or music to seek out choirs or similar groups and give people a way to learn about our traditional songs.”

This will be the Jordanian group’s first visit to Dubai and Jwehan, who sings mezzo-soprano alto with the choir, which has members ages 17 to 60.

“We are very excited to visit Dubai and be a part of this event. We have been practising hard, and look forward to sharing our passion with the audience. We know a couple of other participants, such as Al Fayha Choir, but it would be nice to be introduced to fellow singers and conductors. It is also interesting to see the different styles and songs being showcased,” Jwehan added.

Dona Ghavami Tehrani, the founder and conductor of Melal Choir, said that despite general interest in musical performances in Iran, it is not always easy locating suitable venues for choral music enthusiasts, be it for practicing or performing.

“There’s only one event, the Fadjr Festival, in which choirs can take part. Unfortunately, it takes place once a year, so there are very limited opportunities for groups such as ours to showcase our talent. Also, choirs are discouraged from organising additional concerts due to high fees and complex requirements. This is why events such as ChoirFest Middle East are so important,” she said.

The choir is taking part in the festival’s highly anticipated Choir of the Year competition, in which choirs of all kinds — from school to adult to corporate groups — sing their hearts out to win that coveted title. Groups could also compete in other categories, including Best A Cappella, Best Arabic Song and Best Single Voice. School choirs can compete for the Junior School Choir of the Year and Senior School Choir of the Year titles. They are judged on a series of criteria that are divided into two sections: technical ability (tuning, diction, voice quality, balance, ensemble, dynamics and overall sound) and musical expression (communication, phrasing, passion, energy, commitment and interpretation of the text).

“It was difficult selecting the songs to perform because we can only choose three. We have narrowed it down to three Classical [classical music sung in a cappella style or with simple accompaniment] songs and possibly one Iranian folk song,” Tehrani said.

Members of the audience are also encouraged to be active participants in the workshops during the festival. “Anyone who wants to learn new skills, enhance his existing techniques, or is just curious about what it means to be a part of a choir or to be a conductor, are welcome to take part in our workshops. They are open to all ages, and are free for those who want to simply observe them,” said Joanna Marsh, the festival’s artistic director.

The organisers have been working feverishly to put the final touches before the event begins. “It has been amazing to see the festival grow since it was launched in 2013. We wanted to bring the diverse range of choirs, both in the UAE and the region, in spotlight because people generally tend to know only one or two, either because those groups have a higher profile or people have friends in those choirs,” Marsh said.

“The best feeling, however, is when participating choirs later contact us to say how being a part of the festival has affected them positively. For example, last year’s runner up for Choir of the Year, Tehran Choir, were able to get their certificate attested, allowing them to perform in bigger venues,” she added.

To build awareness and encourage attendees and participants, the festival also organised a series of year-long workshops and events. “We brought in musical experts to hold workshops for both schools and the wider community. They were a great success ... one included participants of all ages who hadn’t necessarily sung before. There were coached to sing a classical music piece. By the time it ended, they were singing beautifully,” she said.

So whether you are passionate about all things music or attending to support a loved one or a favourite group, or simply curious about the richness of choral singing, this is an event not to be missed.

“We want to encourage all types of singing styles, and over the past three years that has resulted in some stunning performances. Last year, the Kabul Choir, which comprises schoolchildren from Afghanistan, left a lasting impression on everyone. This year, we are anticipating a similar reaction when Banat Al Quds, a school choir from Palestine, takes to the stage,” Marsh said.

Nathalie Farah is a writer based in Abu Dhabi.

For more information and to register for the workshops or purchase tickets for the ChoirFest Middle East, visit www.choirfestme.com