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  • Writer's pictureBetsy Cook Weber

The Best of Times (The Eric Ericson Conducting Competition) and The Worst of Times (Covid)

Yesterday was the best of times and the worst of times: We got to observe the Eric Ericson Conducting Competition, but also regrettably elected to cancel visits to Latvian and Lithuanian choirs.

The Worst of Times (Covid).

No, Rick and I have not been infected, but case numbers have skyrocketed in Latvia and Lithuania. Latvia has closed all schools and does not permit gatherings of over fifteen people. Although Lithuania's government has not taken similar steps, its infection rate is similar. We think that our risk of serious illness is very low, but if we did test positive we would face a long quarantine, which we would prefer to avoid. With this in mind, Rick and I have cancelled our plans to go to those two countries. Missing the opportunity to hear the wonderful choirs in these countries and to meet people with whom I have been emailing for almost a year is heartbreaking, but it is what it is.

The Best of Times — The Eric Ericson Competition.

The very first choral recording I ever purchased was as an undergraduate at the University of North Texas. It was a two-record LP set of performances by the Swedish Radio Choir, and it was called something like Five Centuries of Choral Music. Buying those LP's represented a major purchase for me, but I got my money's worth; I literally wore them out listening to the recordings over and over again. My harp-major roommate was ready to kill me, but, hey, I had listened to hours of her Interlochen recordings, so I figured we were even.

Decades later, in addition to watching three of the world's most promising young choral conductors, I had the opportunity to hear this legendary Swedish choir in person — all as part of the Eric Ericson Choral Conducting Competition. To make the appeal even sweeter, the famous men's choir, Orphei Dränger. and Stockholm's version of Houston's High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (Musikgymnasiums Kammarkör) would be performing during the judging interval.

So, yesterday afternoon, Rick and I walked down a leafy road to Berwaldhallen, home of Swedish Radio (and its choir); the harbor with tour boats, yachts, and pastel buildings was on our right. The air was crisp, the trees were golden, and it was a spectacular setting for our pilgrimage as we joined other like-minded choir fans streaming into the hall.

Ninety-three conductors applied for this competition, and eight made it to the semi-finals. The three young finalists (Krista Audere/Latvia, Julia Selina Blank/Germany, and Harry Bradford/Great Britain) each conducted different, extremely difficult repertoire. Each finalist demonstrated a different approach, and each was outstanding. The Swedish Radio Choir was absolutely magnificent, reacting perfectly to, and creating entirely different soundscapes for, each conductor. The choir was everything I could have wished for — a truly professional sound that was at times very delicate and at other times extremely powerful, almost ripping the hair off my head (in a good way :-).

When the jury left the hall to deliberate, the men's chorus, Orphei Dränger, whom I have heard before, performed two pieces. In my opinion, all men look irresistible in white tie and tails, and Orphei Dränger is impressive simply by walking onstage in that attire, but when they sing together with energy and passion, as they did yesterday, it is worth a trip across the Atlantic.

And, recovering high school choral director that I am, I absolutely loved hearing and watching the outstanding Musikgymnasiums Kammarkör sing under the capable direction of Helene Stureborg. How wonderful would it be to get them and Houston's own HSPVA singers together?

I had fun texting back and forth with Eduardo García-Novelli (University of Kansas) between sets; he was watching a live-stream of the event. The winner was Ms. Audere from Latvia, and although Eduardo and I both predicted a different outcome, we were not disappointed. Each finalist was remarkable, and after all, unlike the jury, Eduardo and I had not seen the conductors in action during the preceding rounds.

I assume that there is some monetary reward that accompanies winning The Eric Ericson Competition, and certainly, the notoriety alone would be extremely valuable, but the real prize is that the winner receives contracts to conduct a number of professional choirs all over Europe.

So, I challenge my professional choir-director colleagues — Bob Simpson, Josh Habermann, and Charles Bruffy, among many others. Let's get something like this going in the U.S., perhaps calling it the Robert Shaw Conducting Competition. Wouldn't that be a wonderful addition to the American choral music scene?

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