Music: the international language

Newfoundland’s biggest music festival is underway in St. John’s, and it’s bringing people from more than 50 countries together in song.

Festival 500 brings together many voices in different languages to celebrate a common interest in music.

The international choral festival began on Wednesday in St. John’s and continues until July 10.

When the cod fishery was shut down in 1992 there was a fear that a culture would be lost due to outward migration. The festival was a means to keep music within Newfoundland society and a staple to strengthen the culture, even during economic change.

In 1997, the provincial government funded the project as one of six performances to take place during the Cabot 500 celebrations.
The initial festival was a success and continued as a biannual celebration in Newfoundland today.

According to Festival 500 publicist Andrea Cooper, 1,000 people from 53 different countries are participating this year.

“The different languages and cultures provide a fertile place for creativity,” she says. “The festival is really about sharing voices, and increasing cultural awareness of our unique province and the culture of others.”

Cooper says the experience also keeps the singers connected, even after they leave the island.

“Through their festival experiences they return home feeling affirmed and valued as members of a global family: as singers and as human beings. Perhaps this is the most celebratory legacy of all.”

Transcending language

Nick Dorian of festival headliner Witloof Bay, a Belgian a cappella group of six, sees the festival as a means of communicating without language.

“Music transcends language. Somehow you all have an understanding,” he explains. “There will always be songs you will know, whether you’re from Japan, or Canada, or Belgium. You’ll sing it or hum it wherever you are, and someone else will know it too. You’re all speaking the same language whether you know it or not. You’re connecting.”

Photo courtesy Festival 500.
Members of Witloof Bay watch the opening ceremonies of Festival 500 at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre. Photo by Paul Daly.

The festival also serves as an opportunity for participants and concert goers to hear new music and be exposed to elements of other cultures.

“Festival 500 brings people together, to share their voices, listen and learn from each other. It is about collaboration, not competition, and that is what makes this festival so unique and special,” says Cooper.

Dorian says he and his group have been impressed by the motivation and inspiration they have received, just by watching others perform.

“It’s always good to work with other groups and influences. It’s been great meeting everyone and it is a very creative thing. We have never worked with instruments, being an a cappella group, and in the last performance, we all come together. It’s with a symphony and that’s very interesting for us.”

The big show

The grand finale will take place at Mile One Centre on July 10.

“It is going to be incredibly exciting,” says Cooper. “There will be vocal fireworks, pyrotechnics and an unforgettable new rendition of Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’. The arrangement by Jim Duff includes 1,000 singers, full symphony orchestra and Witloof Bay.”

In order to accommodate a symphony, Mile One had to temporarily change the layout. Rather than stretching vertically, the stage had to be within the middle of the space on the long side of the bowl in order to create a more intimate experience.

There are some well known names from the choral music world participating this year, like Francisco Nunez, artistic director and founder of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. Sandra Snow, Associate Professor of Music at Michigan State University, will be conducting the Come Solo Choir and instructing the Conducting Master class. And Jussi Chydenius from Finland, who got his first record deal at the age of 17, is coaching the younger groups.

A more familiar name is David Pomeroy, originally from the Goulds, is an operatic tenor who has performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

“Vocal music is for everyone,” Cooper adds. “Festival 500 is all about diversity, and with a dynamic and action-packed schedule, there truly is something for everyone.”

Tickets can be purchased at the Arts and Culture Centre box office and, for the grand finale, they can be purchased at Mile One stadium. For more information visit Festival 500’s website:

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