Serenade festival celebrates JFK centennial by bringing together choral groups from around the world

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

John F. Kennedy, born 100 years ago, left a sizable mark on culture and diplomacy in his few years as president.

“The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction in the life of a nation, is very close to the center of a nation’s purpose,” he said in 1962, “and is a test of the quality of a nation’s civilization.”

One of the 35th president’s signature initiatives, the Peace Corps, came to represent that world view — a view heartily shared by the Alexandria, Va.-based company Classical Movement, which has operated a kind of concert tour version of cultural diplomacy for 25 years.

Serenade, a choral festival produced and presented each summer since 2011 by Classical Movements, will celebrate the Kennedy centennial and the Peace Corps this year by showcasing 16 choirs from a dozen countries.

A wide range of styles, genres and languages will be heard in 14 mostly free performances spread around Baltimore, Annapolis and the Washington metro area starting Wednesday. Concerts continue through July 3, when the ensembles will come together for a finale at the Kennedy Center, a co-presenter for this year’s festival.

“Our company has worked in 145 countries,” says Classical Movements founder and President Neeta Helms, “and the Peace Corps has worked in 141. I thought that was such a lovely match to one of Kennedy’s great legacies. And we have commissioned 11 new works for the festival that use Kennedy’s words or address his ideals.”

One of two Baltimore concerts in the festival has an extra JFK connection. In October 1962, the president headed here from Washington to give a speech at the Fifth Regiment Armory on behalf of Democratic candidates in state and local elections. Kennedy arrived by helicopter at Patterson Park, where a crowd of 30,000 greeted him.

When Helms learned about that, she added an outdoor performance at Patterson Park on July 2.

That program will feature an adult choir, Coro Polifonico de Panama; a three-man a cappella ensemble from Zimbabwe called Insingizi; and Pihcintu, a Maine-based chorus that provides refuge and community for girls and young women, many of them immigrants from countries in turmoil. There’s room on the concert, too, for the Shanghai No. 3 High School Girls Band.

At St. Anne’s Church in Annapolis on Thursday, the eclectic mix includes the Mongolian folk group Egschiglen; Balkanes, a quartet of women specializing in Bulgarian vocal music; and Capella, the senior chamber choir of Wallace High School in Northern Ireland (singing some of Kennedy’s favorite Irish songs).

On Wednesday at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Mount Vernon, Insingizi will be featured, along with the women’s choir Le Cantanti di Chicago and the Madras Youth Choir from India. (Those groups will also pay a visit to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s summer OrchKids youth program.)

India, which Kennedy visited as a congressman and where the Peace Corps once had a presence, is where Helms was born and raised.

“I had a rich musical upbringing,” she says. “I took piano and singing lessons. I studied French and German. Music has always been a great passion of mine.”

That passion eventually led Helms to the United States, where she launched the company that would become Classical Movements, which is marking its 25th anniversary this year. The company makes travel and concert arrangements for a who’s who of orchestras and choirs from around the world.

Initially focused on tours to Russia, the organization made a major musical mark handling the arrangements for the Choral Arts Society of Washington when it joined the National Symphony Orchestra and its famed music director Mstislav Rostropovich on a 1993 Russian visit during a constitutional crisis in that country.

“Those were crazy times,” Helms says. “We decided we can’t run a business in only one part of the world, so we added countries rapidly, places where I felt people could make a difference.”

In short order, Classical Movements added Vietnam, Cuba, China, and Baltic countries freshly untethered from the Soviet Union to its repertoire, learning how to deal with red tape along the way.

“We were soon taking choirs, youth orchestras and professional symphony orchestras to many different places,” Helms says. “Our business became musical groups, which is what I always wanted. Our desire to to have Americans go to places that are not easy to reach, but where they can have a huge impact. We will go to a township in South Africa, even though the bus drivers don’t want to drive there and the guides tell us we’re crazy.”

Among the many groups that routinely use Classical Movement’s services is the Morgan State University Choir, which just got back from a tour of Spain and Portugal. Since 2009, the company has arranged for the choir’s visits to South Africa, Cuba, China, Colombia, Russia, Australia, Qatar, and Belarus, among others.

“We’ve had many requests to plan our trips, but I can’t imagine using anyone else,” says Eric Conway, director of the Morgan choir. “They’re not just a travel agency. They know what our needs are as an ensemble. Their contacts all over the world are vast. Neeta is a musician and just about everyone on the staff is a musician in some manner. They’re sensitive to what it takes to be a performing artist.”

Conway is a fan of the Serenade festival, which featured the Morgan choir a few times when scheduling worked out.

“What better way to exchange cultures than through music? Music transcends all the differences,” Conway says.

That philosophy animates Classical Movements.

“It can be a terrible, crazy business,” Helms says. “We’ve been through so much, including all diseases — Ebola, zika — where we had to change entire tours. But it’s 100 percent joy. I love the cultural diplomacy, which more and more organizations have embraced. We have been at the forefront of this for 25 years, and I’m very proud of that.”

In addition to Serenade, the company launched Prague Summer Nights Young Artist Music Festival in 2015, managed by Chris Shiley, who, in addition to working for Classical Movements, plays principal trumpet in the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra.

This summer’s Prague fest, which opened this month and runs into July, will find nearly 100 student musicians, vocal and instrumental, from around the world being mentored by members of major orchestras and opera houses. Guest artists include cellist and Peabody Institute faculty member Amit Peled.

(The company has yet another sideline: commissioning new music. It was behind the recently completed series of Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Centennial Commissions — 10 short works by American composers.)

Meanwhile, Serenade will fill this region with a rich diversity of sounds and will promote cultural interaction.

“Such astonishing choral music is happening all over the world,” Helms says, “and I want people to experience it. Some of the groups have nothing at all, so we’re paying substantially for their flights, meals and housing. It is a lot of work, but I see the audience reaction to the choirs and I think, let’s do it again.”

If you go

Some concerts in the 2017 Serenade Festival include:

  • 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 811 Cathedral St. Free.
  • 7:00 p.m. Thursday at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, Church Circle, Annapolis. Free.
  • 6:30 p.m. July 2 at Pagoda Hill, Patterson Park. Free.

Additional performances will take place at the Kennedy Center and other Washington-area venues. For more information, call 703-683-6040, or go to bit.ly/SerenadeChoralFest.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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