The global singing champion

Inspired by his own early choral experiences, Günter Titsch launched INTERKULTUR in the 1980s. Since then the organisation has grown into the world's leading organiser of international choir competitions and festivals.

CHORALLY spoke to the INTERKULTUR founder recently about his vision for the world of singing, the inside story of the INTERKULTUR organisation, the impact of Covid-19 and what the ‘new normal’ may bring

What inspired you to create INTERKULTUR?

I have always loved to sing and already in the 1980s I experienced how people and nations can be brought together through choral music. I knew about the power of music as a transcending connection between nations and this idea still today is the basis of INTERKULTUR’s work: Bringing nations together in song.

More than 30 years ago this vision started with the first choir journeys from Germany to Hungary, behind the Iron Curtain. And at the first international choir competition in Budapest in 1988, the cornerstone was laid for today’s world-spanning organisation.

This success encouraged me to found INTERKULTUR and set me on the path that would lead to the World Choir Games, also known as the Olympic Games of choral singing.

If you ask anyone what aspect of life fascinates most people, the answer will often be sports. Sports unite and captivate all nations – especially through the Olympics. Music and song can achieve the same thing in a very similar way. And then what could be more natural than to compete peacefully and represent one’s nation through song?

And so I took the Olympic ideal as a basis and applied it to choral music….

In the early days, did you imagine that the organisation would grow so large and have such an extensive influence?

I was aware of the power of music. The unifying element of enthusiasm for choral singing makes prejudices disappear, enables friendships across borders and creates a lively and peaceful togetherness beyond music without looking at nationalities, ideologies and religions.

In recent years INTERKULTUR and the World Choir Games have created a great added value for their partner cities and organisations and have also gained great economic importance. In general, the World Choir Games and all INTERKULTUR events have expanded tremendously over the past 30 years in terms of the audiences and markets they reach. For example, we have established a strong presence in both Asian and European countries.

The fact that after more than 30 years this strength continues to be a decisive driving force for INTERKULTUR, our numerous employees and partners worldwide, and especially the choirs all over the world, gives me particular pleasure. Looking back on the past decades, it fills me with pride how much our staff and partners have done and continue to do for choral music worldwide.

What do you enjoy most about leading INTERKULTUR?

The people! It is wonderful to see how many people from all over the world share our vision and work with us to promote choral singing and the cultural heritage of choral music – be it our partners, the members of the World Choir Council, or the choir conductors and individual singers. In particular, it is always fascinating to see how colourful the choral world is, how much tradition, creativity and talent the individual choirs present on the stages of this world – and what magical, moving music.

And to see this again and again at the great Parade of Nations – a traditional highlight of the World Choir Games – so directly in front of me, is a great moment for me every time. To see the pride with which the participating choirs march behind their national flags, the people from the different nations, partly dressed in national costumes or in school uniforms or their club colours, with well rehearsed choreographies and instrumental accompaniment and so on – that thrills and touches me every time anew.

Aside from the last year, with the Covid-19 problems, how much time do you spend attending INTERKULTUR events?

Unfortunately, not enough. I try to attend two or three of our events every year, as they are the essence of our work. But beyond that, of course, I have numerous other commitments that also involve a lot of travel and appointments, so unfortunately, I don’t always have the necessary time.

However, I have never missed the World Choir Games!

You have said that you are a passionate choral singer – what was your early experience/training? Did you sing in choirs as a child/young man?

I grew up in the ‘singing town’ of Pohlheim in central Hesse, sang in the choir as a child, and was a member of the choir board at a young age. Even though choral music was only a passionate hobby for a long time, I am glad that at some point I was able to put it even more in the centre of my life – professionally as well as privately.

Do you have a favourite composer or favourite repertoire/style?

There are so many composers who have created many magnificent works of choral music that it is difficult for me to name just one. However, I am very grateful that we always have the opportunity to collaborate with the best in the world for our work. Morten Lauridsen and John Rutter, for example, are among the ranks of our Honorary Artistic Presidents and regularly enrich our events with workshops and as jury members. I am also very grateful that John Rutter agreed to write our new anthem on the occasion of the 10th World Choir Games 2018: One Voice is a wonderful piece that perfectly captures the mood and message of our events.

But also, the collaboration with Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds at the 2014 World Choir Games in Riga will always remain in my memory. His piece My Song, the official song of this World Choir Games, has now made it into the standard repertoire of many choirs, which makes me very happy!

Will you ever retire?

I love what I do and often don’t feel it’s work. I am at home in the choral world. INTERKULTUR, our events and our projects are my life’s work and motivation. Retirement in a traditional sense is out of the question for me!

How large is the INTERKULTUR team?

We have a large team spread all over the world. In addition to our headquarters near Frankfurt am Main in Germany with 25 employees, we have numerous colleagues supporting us among others in Albania, Italy, Sweden, Latvia, Korea, Spain, Russia, China and the Philippines.

How do you decide which regions/countries to work with? Do you have plans for projects in ‘new’ areas?

The world of choral music is big and colourful and we would like to include all corners of the earth in our work. Of course, this is not always possible for various reasons, but thanks to our dedicated international network, we are continuously pursuing this. In 2024, for example, we will hold the 13th World Choir Games in Auckland, New Zealand, the first international choir competition in Oceania, already the fifth continent we have visited so far with the World Choir Games.

How long is the lead-time for planning a new event?

This depends on the size of the event. We have numerous festivals and smaller competitions worldwide in addition to the World Choir Games– th e Olympic Games of choral music and the largest international choir competition in the world – and continental Choir Games, such as the European and Asia Pacific Choir Games. We have competent and experienced staff who give their best here and put between a few months and several years of planning and preparation time into such a project. And so far we are planning for new events in 2022 as well as already for 2024!

How are events financed, aside from participation fees from choirs?

In addition to the choirs’ participation fees, the host cities themselves contribute a large part of the funding for the events. For example, the cities provide facilities such as venues and offices, as well as municipal services, and also support international marketing and planning.

And it pays off, because they receive huge revenues from the event, not only from ticket sales, but also from the thousands of international participants who come to their city and stay overnight, eat, book sightseeing tours, buy merchandise from the event, and often even book additional tourist programs in their country before or after the event. It is no coincidence that after hosting the World Choir Games, cities like Graz and Riga even decided to bring other major international events to their cities: both later also became hosts for the European Choir Games and Riga even decided to host the international choir competition ‘Riga Sings’ on a regular basis now.

How does programming work? Is this decided centrally by INTERKULTUR or in partnership with local co-organisers?

Event planning, of course, always takes place in close co-ordination with local partners. We have decades of experience in organising choral competitions and festivals, which we bring to bear here, and we have a broad network of artistic experts who support us in the planning process. The local partners have the necessary knowledge of regional conditions, infrastructure and their own traditions and ideas, as well as special requirements, which we take into account in the program planning.

Especially at the big opening ceremony of the World Choir Games the local partners have the opportunity to present themselves and their music and traditions to the international guests. In this way, each World Choir Games has its very own, country-specific face, which leads to unique intercultural experiences for everyone – for the participants, but also for us as organisers.

INTERKULTUR’s Grand Prix of Nation Gothenburg 2019 & 4th European Choir Games featured 171 choirs and 6300 participants from 47 countries

In your many years’ experience, have you found that choirs are more popular in different parts of the world, or is there a love of choral singing everywhere?

The love for singing together can be found all over the world. However, there are strong regional differences in the public perception of choral singing. In Asia, for example, choral music has very deep roots; in the United States, it is strongly associated with church and gospel music; and the Baltic states have their own rich choral tradition, which has even been recognised by the UNESCO.

In other countries, on the other hand, choral music is not widely known, and in some cases even has a rather old-fashioned image. This is something we at INTERKULTUR are trying to change with the help of our global network, the World Choir Council, by trying to make the diversity and excitement of singing together widely visible.

Do most choirs attend INTERKULTUR events to compete or just to participate?

One of our mottos is ‘Participation is the highest honour’ and this is also lived by many choirs. The competitions are open to all amateur choirs of the world, no matter on which continent they are based, which genre they represent and which artistic ambitions they pursue. The focus is on the participants to experience this festival of music and cultures, to contribute with their own performance, to compete with others and to experience the enthusiasm of singing together.

However, the core of our events are always the competitions and most choirs register with us for these as well. However, for some years now we have been trying to expand our range of events for pure festival choirs with non-competition events such as the ON Stage series or ‘Voices & Wine’.

How easy is it to judge choirs of widely differing backgrounds?

In order to enable a fair competition INTERKULTUR has developed the MUSICA MUNDI quality seal already at the beginning of its activity. The evaluation system has been continuously developed and improved since the first choir competition in 1988 with the help of the experiences of international jurors, consultants and also our participants. Fair and transparent evaluations are a top priority at INTERKULTUR events, and so we offer different levels of difficulty and numerous competition categories for the choirs.

The main evaluation criteria in our system are intonation, choir sound, the overall artistic impression and – depending on the category – either fidelity to the score (in general categories) or interpretation practice (in jazz and pop categories as well as Music of Spirit and Faith) or authenticity (in folklore, gospel, spiritual). This system makes an evaluation possible and transparent also independent of different cultural backgrounds and circumstances.

The evaluation of the choirs is always done by an international jury of choral experts. On the basis of this evaluation, diplomas and medals are awarded and the INTERKULTUR World Ranking List, the international ranking of choirs, is continuously updated.

How do participating choirs benefit from attending INTERKULTUR events?

For the individual singer, participation in an INTERKULTUR event can be a life-changing experience: where else do you have the chance to meet people from all corners of the world, hear their music and experience their traditions in such a short time? Meeting people from other cultures and backgrounds changes the individual’s view of the world and broadens one’s horizons.

But also artistically the participation of a choir in an international competition can change a choir. I would like to quote one of our council members from South Africa, Michael Barrett, who once put it in a nutshell: ‘I think it is important that we drive ourselves to always do our best. By competing, we force ourselves to work harder and be better – and regardless of the end result, my choirs are always better singers and musicians after the trip’.

What happens if choirs can’t afford to attend? Are there grants/scholarships/bursaries available?

In fact, most choirs are dependent on financial support if they want to organise a trip to the World Choir Games or other international choir events. A good solution is sponsoring and fundraising activities of the singers in their home region, because there are usually numerous supporters who want to help them realise their project. After all, it is a great honour for a country and especially for a particular region when a choir represents it at the World Choir Games among the best choirs in the world. We have compiled some tips and ideas for such activities on our website.

INTERKULTUR also launched the Choir Development Fund some time ago, especially for children’s and youth choirs from financially weak countries. Young singers, eg from low-income regions, from war-torn nations or suffering from a disability, experience support and a real chance to become part of the worldwide choir community and to be shaped by this unique experience through the Choir Development Fund. The financial contributions are used, for example, to purchase sheet music for young singers for a choir competition, to pay for accommodation during a choir event, to take advantage of professional coaching before a competition performance, and much more.

Do INTERKULTUR events focus exclusively on offering performing opportunities, or is education/training available as part of the programmes?

In addition to the competitions, educational offers are a large component of our work. The larger competitions always include workshops and master-classes for the participating choirs in the program.

We know that there is a great lack of educational offers in the field of choral music in many corners of the world and we try to counteract this. In many places there is a lack of special training programmes for choir conductors. Again and again we offer workshops in different regions of the world, especially for choir conductors, like the International Choir Conductors Seminar in Wernigerode or the special project for the education of choir conductors in the United Arab Emirates.

A great help in this work are also the members of the World Choir Council, who support us again and again with their expertise, provide free videos with their expertise and tips and are especially committed to strengthening choral music worldwide.

The pandemic has had a devasting effect on the performing arts. What has been the impact on INTERKULTUR, aside from the postponement/cancellation of events? Has there been a time when you felt, ‘We’re not going to survive this’?

The cutbacks and effects, both current and long-term, are truly serious. The cultural sector, and especially choral singing, lacks a strong political lobby in many places, and this has become clearer than ever as a result of the current crisis. To the best of our ability, we have used our extensive network to try to draw the necessary attention to this problem in politics and business and to strengthen it.

Of course, since the beginning of the pandemic, INTERKULTUR has experienced some difficult moments and numerous setbacks due to the circumstances. But we are a strong organisation, sustained by our incredibly dedicated staff and everyone’s passion and conviction for our vision. We never lost confidence and actively used the crisis period to plan. As a result, in 2020, for the first time in the 20-year history of the World Choir Games, we were able to announce not only the subsequent hosts with Gangneung, Korea in 2022, but also the one after that with Auckland, New Zealand in 2024.

It was especially important for us to be able to give new perspectives to the choirs of this world that have been and still are particularly affected by the restrictions. We wanted to pass on our confidence and remind the choral world that this crisis will soon pass and we will be able to sing together on one stage again.

How have INTERKULTUR’s many international partners been affected?

We are in regular exchange with our international partners and it is clear that the Covid-19 crisis has severely restricted public life worldwide. The challenges for politics, economy, culture and also every individual were and are enormous. However, the time has now come, especially for many political leaders, as the overcoming of the crisis is slowly coming within reach, to look ahead and adopt plans for the development and future of their city and region. We know that in many places the question is now increasingly on the table as to how to promote new perspectives and a secure future – and this is where we support our partners and the global choral scene.

The positive news for us is that in consultation with our local partners on the ground, we were able to merely postpone all our events to a later date and not cancel them completely. This shows impressively that we are all just waiting for the end of this pandemic, in order to then return to normal everyday life full of strength and zest for action – full of joie de vivre, music, singing and international encounters!

What support has the German government provided for arts-related organisations like INTERKULTUR?

In Germany, we are fortunate that there is a willingness on the part of politicians to support companies and cultural enterprises. Of course, however, this situation is also fraught with many question marks, hurdles and challenges for our government, which also have a strong impact on the economy. We have now been able to bridge a certain period of standstill with the support of the state, but it is also important for us – not only economically but also mentally – that we can soon stand on our own two feet again and that the world can return to a certain normality.

How far do you think choirs and choral organisations will ‘go back to normal’ in the future? Do you feel that some changes – for example, online rehearsals and performances – are here to stay?

People want to sing together again in groups, stand on stage and cultivate their friendships. They no longer want to move in the virtual realm and present their voices digitally. That was a good and effective fallback solution during the pandemic, but it cannot last long. The virtual is no substitute for the community of the choir, for the sound of singing together and for the emotions that arise on stage. This is the unanimous feedback we have received from our network in recent months. Digital solutions can complement coming together and singing together at most, but never replace it.

Do you feel that the pandemic has resulted in any positive changes – for example, enabling greater awareness of the value and benefits of singing in choirs?

The creativity with which the choirs have responded to the restrictions of this pandemic has really been a joy to me. This has once again made it clear that the passion for singing together is very strong worldwide and even despite the current circumstances, the choirs do not fall silent.

Also, the solidarity of the people has clearly grown. The numerous news stories in which entire neighbourhoods have made music together and affected businesses, cultural institutions and other stakeholders have joined forces to find joint solutions to survive in this difficult time have been a real bright spot in the past year. People’s cohesion grew stronger against the backdrop of the all-encompassing pandemic, and this gave hope.

I have even heard from some choir directors that they expect a real boom for choral singing after the crisis. Because people have never been made more aware of how much community means to them and how much they miss social togetherness in these times – and where better to find this sense of community than in singing together in a choir?

Günter Titsch, President of INTERKULTUR, World Choir Council & World Choir Games

Gunther Titsch

Günter Titsch is the President of INTERKULTUR, the world’s leading organiser of international choir competitions and festivals since 1988. Lead by the vision of bringing together people of all countries, cultures and world views in peaceful competitions, he and his internationally experienced team developed the INTERKULTUR choir events into the largest and most successful cultural event series worldwide.

The most ground-breaking success however was the idea to create major events following the ideals of the Olympic Games in a new way. These ‘Choir Olympics’, which became further on well-known as the ‘World Choir Games’, have become the world’s largest choir competition.

INTERKULTUR’s competitions and festivals nowadays set standards worldwide concerning the artistic level and professional organisation of such events in the choral world.