Chronicle.lu recently got the opportunity to speak with James Libbey, Artistic Director of Voices International, about the 25th anniversary of this international choir in Luxembourg.
Founded in 1997 by Peggy Jenks, a music teacher at the former American International School of Luxembourg (today’s International School of Luxembourg), together with some singers, Voices International (VI) today consists of around 60 members of 35 different nationalities.
James Libbey, a music and theatre teacher at the International School of Luxembourg (ISL) and an experienced choral conductor, took over as Artistic Director of Voices International for the spring 2018 season.
On Saturday 2 April 2022, the international choir celebrated its 25th anniversary with a gala concert, attended by 450 people, at the Conservatoire de la Ville de Luxembourg. However, this successful event was just the beginning of celebrations planned for this year.
Chronicle.lu: How has Voices International evolved and grown over the past 25 years? What is its main mission and has this changed over the years?
James Libbey: The name of the choir was chosen to reflect the multiplicity of nationalities in the choir. The international flavour of the choir has remained consistent and has actually grown over the years, which is consistent with the growth within the community at large in Luxembourg. The intercultural experience is therefore a huge reason people join the choir and stay on for multiple season. It really does feel like a great big family.
We run workshops to learn music, but also share one of the most diverse buffets in Luxembourg, in which choristers bring food from their home country to share with friends. This is a small way we can learn about each other, but it is the weekly contact of sitting beside somebody from somewhere else and getting to know them through our common bond of music, that really solidifies the VI experience.
VI has continued to grow musically over the years. As the fourth conductor for the ensemble, one of the comments I hear at the end of concerts is how much the choir has developed musically. As a conductor, I am always very proud to hear comments like this and know it comes from the trust and effort singers put into doing their best to prepare for a concert.
Although the majority of the songs are in English, we also include at least a song or two from other languages in each repertoire. In the gala concert, we sang in Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Mandarin, Spanish, Zulu and English, which is symbolic of the VI experience and one of the reasons I chose this piece [Dan Forrest’s Jubilate Deo].
The choir is also unique in that we accept people with multiple levels of experience. We typically have singers who have always loved to sing, but have never had the experience of singing in a choir. We have a tremendous support system for first time singers including rehearsal tracks.
On top of exploring a diverse repertoire of music in different languages and styles, one of the fundamental purposes of the choir beyond singing is to raise money for local charities, with a particular focus on those supporting children. Proceeds from concerts are given to chosen charities, which I believe makes our concerts that more meaningful. This aspect of VI is one of the reasons we give energetic and heart-felt performances.
Proceeds of our first concert in our 25th Anniversary year went to:
– Ukraïnka asbl Luxembourg, a Luxembourg-based NGO founded in 2014, is an organisation of Ukrainian women living in Luxembourg, Germany and France who have been actively involved in helping and supporting their Ukrainian home country. Hospitals and children’s homes have been supported with needed donations in kind. Since the war started with the Russian invasion into Ukraine, they have focused on delivering aid to the humanitarian disaster areas and offering help and support to refugees.
– Toutes à l’école Luxembourg, a Luxembourg-based NGO founded in 2005, is committed to the inclusion of disadvantaged girls in Cambodian society, by providing them quality education from primary to secondary school. The pupils benefit from comprehensive support throughout their schooling, including nutrition, medical care, boarding accommodation, coaching and mentoring.
Both these groups work to improve the lives of children and we will continue our charitable tradition by donating towards these and similar groups with the proceeds from all our concerts in 2022.
Chronicle.lu: How were the activities of Voices International impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and how did you adapt to these changes?
James Libbey: Like all cultural activities, our choir was dramatically impacted by the pandemic. What people missed the most were rehearsals. At first we held online rehearsals, which as you can imagine are immensely challenging and do not replicate a live rehearsal where we interact and feed off of the energy of each other.
Despite this, the choir continued and held weekly rehearsals and get-togethers run by our amazing social committee. Artistically we managed to achieve some goals as a group including:
In May 2020, the “No Time” video also brought us together. In December 2020, we were able to produce a VI family virtual choir video of “An der grousser hellger Nuecht”. In March 2021, our virtual recording of “Blue Skies” and subsequent video was featured at the opening ceremonies of Relais Pour la Vie.
In 2021, the choir was granted access to the INECC [choral singing institute] rehearsal space and with some ease in restrictions, we were able to hold a live rehearsal with singers present in the studio with a camera both fixed on them and myself, which was broadcast to singers at home. This hybrid model kept us together and was a real special time for us during the period of intense restrictions. It was a real joy to return to in-person singing this season.
Chronicle.lu: Have things more or less returned to pre-COVID-19 times in terms of event organisation? What sort of planning had to go into the anniversary concert?
James Libbey: Despite some lingering restrictions, it is a relief to finally feel like the worst of the pandemic is behind us, but there were some bumps along the way in the lead up to our gala concert. The government restrictions were complex and the VI committee and 25th anniversary committee, formed especially for this year, took a great deal of time to navigate the hurdles put in place for the concert. There were ten meetings and countless hours put into making the event a success. I am continuously amazed at the good will in the form of time and expertise that our singers put into the choir.
The sanitary measures will hopefully remain loosened as we move into our second spring season. The choir are all vaccinated and our amazing committee regularly reviews the situation to do what is best for the ensemble.
In the end, we sang the concert without masks.
At the time of the printing of our poster, we were assuming that the event would be a Covid Check event with only 200 people allowed to attend. We were very happy when the restrictions were lifted and in the end, there were over 450 people in the audience, which is close to full capacity.
Chronicle.lu: Approximately how many members does Voices International currently have? Was this impacted by the pandemic?
James Libbey: In a typical season we usually have 50-60 singers. For our gala concert, we had 75 singers on stage from Voices International. The choir was joined by the ISL Youth Singers and Eden Choir from El Sistema, Luxembourg. Although we have all been negatively impacted by the pandemic, I am positive by nature, and firmly believe in the power of music to bring people together. In this regard, I think people are craving communal events, and singing in a choir is a way of strengthening a feeling of togetherness and is well documented as a way of reducing stress levels.
Chronicle.lu: Apart from the concert, do you have any other special activities planned for this 25th anniversary? / What other activities are on the agenda this year?
James Libbey: In a normal year, we usually run two seasons a year. This year, we chose to divide the spring season into two sessions. The first, season one featured the Jubilate Deo concert, or gala concert, on 2 April.
On top of singing the Luxembourg premier of Dan Forrest’s master work, Jubilate Deo with orchestra, the choir will also sing a second season of music this spring, culminating in a concert at the Philharmonie on 18 June and also later that month in the Fräiraim [rainy days] Festival. The 25th season will also feature a gala dinner where we will invite current and former members. For our concerts in December, the choir will also commission a local composer to write a piece just for us, which we will sing in a world-premier performance. The culmination of the year will see us on stage as part of the Esch 2022 European Capital of Culture.
We anticipate full audiences for these events.
Chronicle.lu: In your opinion, what makes Voices International unique?
James Libbey: I am privileged to be the musical director of Voices International and very much enjoy making music with a diverse group of people from multiple cultures and backgrounds. My belief in the power of music to bring people together to create something beautiful in the world is fundamental to my philosophy of music education. I believe in my singers and the energy that they bring with them to rehearsals. I strive for musical excellence, but also run a fun and fast paced rehearsal. This combination has contributed to a strong core of singers returning to the choir season after season.
The diversity of repertoire combined with a strong sense of family makes Voices International unique.
The fact that anybody can join is also special. VI welcomes all level of singers, and I love the challenge of bringing together all of the voices. The success stories of so many singers, that is having no experience to singing one of the most challenging pieces in the choral repertoire, is awe inspiring.
If anybody is willing to put in the time, then it does not matter your experience. We have so many levels of experience in the choir. Those with more experience guide the others along, in this regard we have an incredible support system.
The sense of achievement we experience as an ensemble comes out in the pure joy we share with our audiences.