Syracuse University Singers 2016 Concert Tour of Bulgaria

by Emily Henriksen, ACFEA Tour Manager

Syracuse University Singers performs in the EGP in Varna, Bulgaria

As the announcer opened the envelope, thousands of people in Varna’s Congress Centre held their breath. Singers from Italy, Hungary, Spain, the US, and several other countries around the world were all perfectly still, waiting to hear which name would be read. This was it: the moment the 2016 European Grand Prix winner would be announced.

The road to this festival, this stage, and this moment didn’t just start with the planning of this tour. It began two years ago, when my telephone rang and Dr. John Warren, Director of Choral Activities at Syracuse University, said, “I need a tour.” Thanks to an extraordinary gift from a generous donor, the cost of the tour wouldn’t be a concern. After considering several options, he chose a tour of France that would include the Florilège Vocal de Tours, held every May.

Florilège is part of the EGP organization that includes six member competitions: the Guido d’Arezzo in Arezzo, Italy, the Béla Bartók International Choir Competition in Debrecen, Hungary, the International Choral Competition Gallus Maribor in Maribor, Slovenia, Tolosa Choral Competition in Tolosa, Spain, the Florilège Vocal de Tours in Tours, France, and the International May Choir Competition in Varna, Bulgaria.

Each festival has its own history—Florilège’s goes back to 1972, Varna’s began in 1975—but in 1988, Arezzo, Debrecen, Tours, and a festival in Goriza, Italy formed the EGP. Varna joined in 1989, and Tolosa in 1990. In 2008, Gorizia left the organization and was replaced by Maribor.

Every year since, the winners of the member competitions are automatically eligible to compete in the following year’s European Grand Prix, which is held in one of the festival cities. There is no other way to compete in an EGP: to participate, you must win a member competition the previous year.

Syracuse University Singers reacts to winning the Florilege Vocal de Tours

In November, 2014, Dr. Warren applied for his University Singers to compete in the 2015 Florilège festival competition. In January, 2015, they were accepted and began perfecting their program. In May, they boarded an airplane for France. 

En route to Tours, they performed two beautiful concerts, one in Paris’s L’Église de la Madeleine, and one in the stunning Chartres Cathedral. Then it was time to compete.

“Performing at the competition was intense,” Dr. Warren said. “At Florilège, the choir waiting to go on next sits directly behind the shell at the back of the stage. Obviously, you have to be silent and you can hear this wonderful choir perform. The tension just builds. Moreover, the audience is not allowed to applaud between works you perform, so singers don’t get that moment of release during the program. It was draining but thrilling, and we got to do it three times—a different program each time.”

Although the competition was fierce, the overall atmosphere was friendly. Dr. Warren added, “I did always love that backstage as one choir exited stage left and we prepared to enter stage right there were always gestures of goodwill from choir to choir—smiles, waves, thumbs up.”

“I told the choir afterward that I had two goals for the competition: 1. To belong on that stage with great choirs from all over the world; 2. To do our absolute best, and especially in our first and third programs they gave all they could possibly give. What felt good was that it was shared—that’s choir—it’s an experience you can only have together.”

But the fun wasn’t over! By winning in Tours, the University Singers were automatically eligible to travel again next summer to the 2016 European Grand Prix held in Varna.

“I felt grateful and supported to be able to go to Varna,” Dr. Warren said. “We had the wonderful support of the Director of our school, the Dean of our college, and the Chancellor of Syracuse University. The Chancellor and his wife both made significant personal gifts to support the trip.”

Once again, Dr. Warren found himself carefully selecting a competition program, and once again the students worked hard week after week perfecting it.

Like their 2015 tour, this tour wasn’t just about the competition. Bulgaria was a new country for almost everyone, and it’s not hard to fall under its friendly, beautiful, delicious spell. The University Singers started in Plovdiv, where they performed alongside the lovely Gaudeamus Choir at the Academy of Music, Dance and Fine Arts. Then it was off to the charming mountain town of Veliko Tarnovo for a concert in the Municipality Theatre. After Varna, they performed in Sofia in the stunning Great Hall of Sofia University.

In the end, another choir went home with the 2016 European Grand Prix plaque and prize. But before they even set foot on the Varna stage, Dr. Warren relayed the sentiments his mother had shared with him before the tour began: “They’ve already won.” Having had the privilege of performing for adoring audiences in dazzling cities in a most welcoming country, it’s impossible to disagree.

To learn more about Bulgaria as a possible concert tour destination for your ensemble, please visit our Bulgaria and Romania destination page, or contact us.