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.6
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.n 6
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.
The year 2000 was special 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 premiere of Walt Whitman’s Dream, featuring a 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 visa 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. 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 Washington—the greatest number of groups in its history.
The 2006 Festival continued to generate worldwide interest from the choral community. Aware of tighter security restrictions for international travel, Festival organizers urged choir members
to begin early with visa applications and passports. Fourteen world-class choirs were selected and accepted the invitation to participate at the seventh Festival, traveling from Australia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Indian, Slovenia, South Korea, Taiwan and Wales. Choirs from California, Kansas, Montana, North Dakota and Washington State represented the United States. Record-breaking hot temperatures did not hinder concert attendance as audience members from all over the United States continued to fill concert venues to capacity.
Enthusiastic audiences at the 2009 Festival again filled concert venues to enjoy exceptional concerts performed by choirs representing countries from as far away as the Caucasus of Eurasia and as close to home as Colorado. Now a grand tradition in Missoula, and known throughout the choral world, singers from 12 countries representing the Czech Republic, Estonia, Republic of Georgia, Germany, Mexico, South Korea, Sweden and Taiwan traveled from overseas to Missoula’s Festival, along with U.S. choirs from California, Colorado, Michigan and Montana. Ancient Georgian chants were interspersed with German waltzes, a Swedish wedding march, and “Dancin’ in the Street”, performed by the South Korean choir.
Missoulian’s once again opened their hearts and homes to sixteen choirs for the 2013 Festival. Choirs came from the world over. We learned about their culture through conversations around the dinner table, we watched reactions to our culture here in Montana, and we listened to their amazing music. There are no better ambassadors than musicians sharing their love of music and the culture of their countries. New to the 2013 Festival was the “Meet the Choirs” lunch at Caras Park. Not only was this a great place for the Missoula community to come and mingle, but it gave the choirs a chance to get together in a unified environment and create lasting bonds with choir members from other nations. Countries represented in 2013 were: Australia, Canada, China, Costa Rica, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Poland, South Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan and the United States.
The Missoula community came out in force to make the 2016 Festival happen! For the first time, we had a full Festival sponsor in Merrill Lynch. We introduced the “Choir Crawl” to downtown Missoula. Choirs performed in downtown galleries, pubs and even out on Higgins Street. The energy, large and enthusiastic crowds, and the smiles on the street were evidence of the overwhelming popularity of this event. We were also able to provide 5 free outreach concerts to communities including Helena, Great Falls, Florence, Polson, and Dillon. Countries represented in this Festival were Canada, Costa Rica, Estonia, Georgia, Hong Kong, Poland and the United States. Coinciding with improved Cuban political relations, we also had a Cuban group perform in this Festival. Many community members put their heart and soul into having this group participate and they were well-received by hosts and audience alike.