Singing Cincinnati's Praises

This time of year there’s not much theater in town, something I usually grouse about. But that scarcity pushed me in a different direction this year: I bought tickets to the World Choir Games, and, boy, was I glad I did. I saw as much drama in those 11 d

This time of year there’s not much theater in town, something I usually grouse about. But that scarcity pushed me in a different direction this year: I bought tickets to the World Choir Games, and, boy, was I glad I did. I saw as much drama in those 11 days as I’ve seen in many theater seasons — entertaining, passionate, talented and eye opening. (I wrote daily items for CityBeat’s arts blog, where you can read about more than a dozen events and performances I attended.) This astonishing celebration made me proud of the city I call home, so proud that I’m stepping away from my usual topic to share some observations about the Games.

There were reportedly 364 choirs here during the games — about 15,000 singers from more than 60 nations. Much to the surprise of many Cincinnatians, these visitors loved our city. Downtown, where many performances took places at the Aronoff, the Masonic Center, U.S. Bank Arena and Music Hall, swarmed with people speaking languages we don’t usually hear locally. Many choirs also traveled to neighborhoods for “Friendship Concerts” in parks and churches, with hospitality that enabled person-to-person exchanges. Seeing our city through their eyes made us look at ourselves twice, and we seemed to like what we saw.

The Games needed 3,500 or so volunteers to keep things running smoothly, from hosting events, working backstage, driving shuttles and more. Volunteers and others who simply came to see what was going on were surprised at how clean, inviting and wholly new downtown has become. The renovated Washington Park opened two days after Games’ opening ceremony, and it was full of people every day thereafter. Following an afternoon concert at Music Hall, I found hundreds of people in the park waiting for a free concert by several choirs. I listened to two of them — the Tygerberg Children’s Choir of South Africa and the Detsky Khor MEZ Krasnodar from Russia — a joyous event created by a remarkable new public space.

Every event I attended had a jubilant atmosphere. Cincinnatians stopped being guarded and polite and started being hospitable. People struck up conversations with strangers. Tuesday’s casual, rambunctious parade of nations from the Convention Center to Fountain Square had a crowd standing six-deep along Fifth Street, cheering for choirs. Observers and marchers all had cameras to take pictures of the fun.

Everyone talked about the heat, but no one seriously minded. Many visitors wandered into cool downtown department stores smart enough to extend hours, and big sales resulted from new tourists who snapped up blue jeans and jewelry. Asked their favorite thing about America, many visitors mentioned ice cream — thank goodness for Graeter’s, located right on Fountain Square. When it was all said and done, who cared about heat, crowds, whatever? It was a party.
The party officially ended on Saturday night at U.S. Bank Arena. Following the closing ceremony, the Gema Chandra Cendrawasih University Choir from Papua, Indonesia, offered an impromptu performance on the plaza between the arena and Great American Ball Park. The 49-member group had a horrendous week of travel problems, journeying from Jakarta to Cincinnati, arriving on Saturday, too late to compete. They chose to entertain the crowd leaving the closing ceremony — hundreds of people circled them as they danced wearing grass skirts and body paint, warbling, shouting, singing and whistling. They sang on Sunday morning at a Madisonville Church, and then had to tackle the challenge of returning to Indonesia. I’m betting that some generous Cincinnatians stepped up to help them.

The mantra of the games is, “Singing together brings nations together.” I saw that over and over during this moving celebration. Interkultur, the organizer of the Games, announced plans to establish a North American office in Cincinnati. Rumors are circulating that we might see “Choirs of the Americas Games” here as soon as 2013. The next World Choir Games will take place in Riga, Latvia, across the Baltic Sea from Sweden, on the Western edge of Russia. I bet some Cincinnatians are already planning that trip for 2014.

I’m not an especially effusive person, but I found myself with a tune stuck in my head from Saturday’s closing ceremony. Everyone joined in for “Oh, Happy Day.” I suspect this is the first of many more happy days, weeks and celebrations that can be celebrated here in Cincinnati, thanks to the inspiration of the World Choir Games. And to Cincinnatians, who proved we know how to be great hosts and have a good time.

CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]

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