By James Humphrey
If the Baha’i Faith is all about building a worldwide family, then the sixth annual Baha’i Choral Festival could be seen as a small-scale global village that revealed glimpses into its essential international connections.
One major networking method was thoroughly modern, using the Internet. Another amounted to good old-fashioned person-to-person relationship-building.
The public result was a pair of concerts on a sunny Sunday, May 27, witnessed by 1,200 guests at the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois, and presenting a soaring and shimmering selection of some of the most challenging music the annual massed choir has attempted.
“I visualize our singing like a river originating from the top of the mountain,” one participant later wrote to the House of Worship Music Department, “trickling down initially softly, almost silent, gaining momentum and then roaring in all its might in a waterfall of powerful notes carrying the Word of God and flooding any receptive heart.”
The performances were warmly received, and the afternoon concert garnered an extended standing ovation and two encores.
Every year, many attendees call each Choral Festival “the best yet,” notes Van Gilmer, music director for the House of Worship and chief organizer of the festival. He adds that he is never sure how to keep such steady improvement going, “but somehow it happens in the minds of so many people,” he says.
Though its total of 177 singers was smaller than in some years, the festival drew participants from an unprecedented nine countries, including from 34 U.S. states. As usual, a substantial contingent traveled from Canada. And the third-largest national contingent came from Bermuda.
How is it possible to muster a choir from so many places to master harmonies of up to eight parts, with only three days’ intensive rehearsal together?
The Internet was key. With participants signing up months in advance, the Music Department shared audio files that helped individuals rehearse their parts early in the process. It also found a streaming service that allowed singers with webcams to rehearse virtually together from across the seas.
All this developed over several weeks before 204 participants gathered for the May 24–27 festival itself — including several friends of the Baha’is and dozens of non-singers who participated for the camaraderie and musical immersion.
The Sunday program, held twice in the central auditorium of the House of Worship, offered spoken passages of sacred Baha’i and other scriptures linked to the songs.
At the opening, the traditional Baha’i song “Allah-u-Abha,” arranged by Russ Garcia, was followed by the English translation of that invocation, “God Is Most Glorious,” set to music by modern Gospel composer Eric Dozier. A Baha’i prayer followed, with its words then set to music in the piece “O Thou by Whose Name” by Charles Wolcott.
Arrangements of traditional Negro spirituals “My Lord, What a Mornin’” and “I Opened My Mouth to the Lord!” as well as the more formal, intricate “Have Ye Not Known? Ye Shall Have a Song” by Randall Thompson and the Shaker hymn “Not One Sparrow Is Forgotten” were preceded by readings paralleling those songs’ messages from Jewish, Christian and Islamic scripture.
Finally came several brief proclamations in the words of Baha’u’llah of the spiritual significance of the present day, followed by a meditative and gradually blossoming song by Stanford Scriven, “This Is the Day.” The program was brought to a close with “Benediction,” a beloved early 20th-century Baha’i hymn by Louise Waite.
The unity and closely interdependent harmony of those performances had their own parallel in a family feeling that many participants expressed before and after the concerts.
Friday evening before the concerts, a loosely structured get-to-know-you event revealed that many actual couples and intergenerational family groups were among their number. Several were international and interracial, vividly demonstrating the Baha’i ideal of “flowers of one garden.”
Friendships across the globe were formed and solidified, with people representing Barbados, Finland, Germany, Italy, Trinidad and Tobago and Uganda alongside the larger contingents from the United States, Canada and Bermuda.
How was it, though, that the event attracted a group of eight from Bermuda, a tiny island territory of Great Britain? That was where personal networking came in.
In the previous year, a Baha’i choral group was raised in Bermuda, thanks in part to the efforts of Bette Roberts, who temporarily resided there as a Baha’i pioneer much of the year to support Bermuda’s Baha’i community and accompany it in raising its capacity.
“Bette did such a wonderful thing,” one participant from the island wrote, “first inspiring us to sing as service [in their home community], and suggesting that we could participate in the Festival. We instantly committed to it.”
A veteran participant from Canada wrote, “I am still euphoric. … Singing prayers with total focus for up to 12 hours a day certainly releases endorphins, to say nothing of spiritual powers.”
Feedback from local Chicago-area residents, Gilmer notes, has already helped provide some ideas for next year’s musical offering. And that’s a good thing, considering that when every festival is “the best yet” the pressure is always on “to at least match it next year.”