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November 24, 2006

Warm voices from a cold war

Waterloo Record (Canada):

Born out of post-war propaganda Berlin's Kammerchor now serenades the world as a highly respected choir

One of the world's most acclaimed and historically significant choirs will stop in Kitchener -- one of only three Canadian cities the RIAS Kammerchor will visit on its first North American tour. On Monday, the choir will be at the Centre in the Square to perform a selection of mostly Romantic-era music, including works by Brahms, Schubert and Schumann.

The music will have two themes: German Romanticism and the depiction of nature through music, said James Wood, from England, who has worked with the choir before and is acting as guest conductor for the duration of the tour. "There's a little twist at the end, because of being in Canada, it was thought it would be quite nice to do something with more of a French feel to it," he said, naming pieces by Claude Debussy and Francis Poulenc. "(They) also have to do with nature but are less romantic."

The 35-voice a cappella choir's history is intimately linked to the post-war formation of the Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany, because of the radio station where it started performing. After the Second World War, Germany was split into four occupation zones -- American, French, British and Soviet.

Much to the Americans' consternation, the Soviet Union quickly came to control Berlin's largest broadcasting centre and established Berliner Rundfunk, or Radio Berlin, as its mouthpiece to the German people. The Americans countered by setting up their own station, Wire Broadcasting in the American Sector, which they called "the free voice of the free world."

According to a Goethe Institute article, the signal could originally be received only via telephone wires -- the same wires that had transmitted air-raid signals during the war. The name was later changed to Radio in the American Sector, or RIAS. Although staffed by Germans, the radio station was initially an American-controlled propaganda vehicle, much as Radio Berlin was initially a Soviet-controlled propaganda vehicle.

But RIAS also played an important cultural role, one that increasingly became uniquely German. In addition to jazz and swing music, the station hosted choral music almost from its inception in 1946. In 1948, the RIAS Kammerchor became a full-time, professional choir and started recording and performing all over the world. Although the RIAS radio station was incorporated into DeutschlandRadio 12 years ago, the Kammerchor lives on.

Berlin is also home to a larger and older choir with its roots in radio, the Rundfunkchor Berlin. The RIAS choir has purposely stayed a smaller chamber choir, Wood said. "The RIAS Kammerchor kept its name in order to have a clear identity from the (Rundfunkchor) radio choir, which still very much exists as one of the largest choirs in Germany today." Some of the music the choir will perform in Kitchener will likely be familiar, particularly to German-speaking audiences, Wood said. "I hope that they would feel a large degree of nostalgia . . . the Brahms pieces are very, very important Brahms pieces. And I think my experience so far is that in the tours we've done, a lot of people do know the music we're singing."

Some of the music, on the other hand, is less well-known. "The Schumann pieces are very unusual . . . a cappella music is not that easy to find; it's not got a huge public and most of the major composers wrote just a little for a cappella choir, not a huge amount," Wood said. "It's possible well-educated musicians might not be familiar with all these pieces."

Posted by acapnews at November 24, 2006 10:00 PM