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Last updated: Wed. Jul. 23, 2014 - 06:29 am EDT

Report from Riga: Voices of Unity youth choir wins gold medal in gospel music category

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Editor's note: The Voices of Unity youth choir, a program of the local Unity Performing Arts Foundation on Fort Wayne, has been competing July 9-19 at the World Choir Games in Riga, Latvia.

The choir won gold medal status in the Gospel Music category and silver medal status in the Popular Choral Music category.

Here is their report on their first day of competition:

July 16-17

The first day of competition has finally come and gone. It was a day full of many emotional highs!

The day started at 7:30 a.m., with breakfast as usual. After breakfast, the choir had a quick unscheduled rehearsal from 8:30-9:30 a.m. before going to the Riga Congress Centre for rehearsal and sound check for both the Gospel and Popular Choral music categories. The Popular Choral music competition was not until Friday, July 17. After the choir left the hotel, some of the adult tour leaders stayed behind to ensure a special lunch was ordered for the group.

While the choir was rehearsing at the Riga Congress Centre, several students began feeling nervous and had upset stomachs. Choir founder and director Marshall White and the adult workers made sure the group had plenty of water and healthy snacks before the competition.

When they returned, it was reported that the track CD to be used for the competition had a scratch, and skipped during sound check. Justin Sheehan helped save the day as he made a trip to the store to purchase blank CDs to prepare new ones for the performances today. By this time, it was nearly noon, and it was time for the choir to leave the hotel once again for the Arena Riga for an additional sound check for the Stars of the World Choir Games concert that would take place later in the evening.

While at sound check, our Tour Guide, Liva, pointed out two Latvian celebrities who were also doing sound checks and recordings for the concert. She said it was a big deal to have them at the event because they are very popular!

At this point, Liva also took the time to explain how she became involved with the World Choir Games. She said she wanted to volunteer for the event, and the volunteers were given a list of the participating choirs. She said the name “Voices of Unity” caught her eye, so she Googled the group. Once she found information and videos, she said: “Oh, I have to have them!” Liva has been such a wonderful assistant and tour guide, and has become one of the family! She invited her family to watch the competition and to the concert in the evening.

After sound check, it was time to go directly back to the Riga Congress Centre for the Gospel competition. As the choir was walking into the venue, a choir could be heard rehearsing a very familiar song. We came to learn it was the Riga Gospel Choir, and they were competing with one of Voices of Unity's (VOU) signature songs, “He's Alive.” VOU won the grand champion title in the Gospel category in 2010 while in China with this song.

It was a strange feeling to hear them singing this song. It made the competition seem even more real, and reminded the group that they must give their all on stage. The adult leaders were able to watch most of the competition from the auditorium. The choir waited backstage and met with another competitor from the United States, Mosaic Singers from Detroit, Michigan. VOU also spent time praying and giving thanks for getting to this moment in time.

The competition was heated, as all of the choirs were extremely talented! Choirs from Gibraltar, Germany, Indonesia, Latvia and the United States took the stage. Each choir brought something unique and a different spin on the genre of Gospel music.

One competitor that stands out was definitely The Riga Gospel Choir. They had a great sound and were showing lots of emotion on stage. Once VOU took the stage, those of us in the audience cheered them on and watched intently. They sang “He Reigns” by Kirk Franklin, “How Excellent Is Your Name” an arrangement by White, and “Joyful, Joyful” as seen in the movie, "Sister Act II."

The choir definitely gave the performance their all. We were so proud to see them on the stage, giving such an awesome performance. The audience was equally receptive and enthusiastic about the choir.

After the competition, the choir walked outside to take pictures at a monument in a nearby park. The choir, along with White, became singing models as they posed and sang songs as Justin Sheehan and his apprentice and VOU alumnus, Jimmie Jones, captured the moments with their cameras.

When the flash of the cameras stopped, it was time to board the buses again and head back to the hotel for a late lunch. The choir was treated to Greek salad and pizza from a Latvian pizza place called Cili Pica. The group was able to rest up until it was time to depart from the hotel again, to go to the Stars of the World Concert.

After much needed rest and preparation, it was time to head back to the Arena Riga for the concert. Once the choir reached their dressing room, they were greeted by the World Famous King Singers, and serenaded by them before they took the stage as well. After their serenade, they waited backstage, while adults/parents went into the arena to watch from the stands.

Voices of Unity was one of about five choirs given the distinction of being the Stars of the World Choir Games, the best of the best. There were thousands of people in the audience, and this performance was being recorded in order to be aired on the national Latvian station.

Voices of Unity came on stage just before the second half of the show, and gave a stirring performance. They sang “I Smile,” by Kirk Franklin, and “Will You Be There” by Michael Jackson. People in the audience responded emotionally to the performance, especially the Michael Jackson piece.

They were mesmerized by the amazingly mature sound coming from such a young group of singers, as well as the outstanding vocals of Wayne Starks as the soloist. Our stylist, Ms. Veronica Townes, told the choir backstage that a woman sitting next to her was in tears because she though Wayne sounded so much like Michael Jackson!

Another powerful moment occurred when the conductor of Ave Sol, a choir from Riga that had performed in the concert as well, came back stage. Ave Sol sang a song Voices of Unity sang a few weeks prior in Carnegie Hall, during the concert. They joined VOU in singing the song in the dressing room. It was beautiful.

Next, VOU sang a song to them, and they returned the gift of song with their own song, a traditional Latvian song. The conductor stated: “Music is the only thing that brings people together.” VOU then stated their mission statement is English and Spanish, and wowed the other choir. The conductor said: “Please, stay in Riga!”

It was soon time to board the bus again to head back to the hotel. We had been told the concert would be televised on Latvian National television. Once we got back home, it was confirmed that the concert was being televised at that very moment. We all went to our rooms to watch what we just participated in or had seen live. It was a surreal moment! One to truly be proud of!

On Friday, July 17, we went to the first Awards Ceremony where the Champions Gospel Category would be announced. Since VOU won Grand Champion in the Gospel category in China in 2010, the choir has qualified to compete in the Champions Competition. There were also Open Competitions for those who were first-timers.

The Awards Ceremony began at 8 pm. We were concerned because we faced several obstacles when trying to get inside the arena. First, we were told we were not on the list, and we did not have a voucher to get in. Second, our camera men were not allowed to pass through with their equipment. Eventually, we were able to overcome those obstacles.

The energy in the arena was high, as all of the choirs gathered, waving their native flags and dancing to the music over the loud speakers. Russia started “the wave” and it went throughout the entire arena for about 10 rounds!

The Champions Gospel category was the last one called of the night, and by that time, it was after 11 p.m. It was a very long ceremony. The announcer began calling out the silver medalists and the points they earned. Then came the gold medalists. VOU was followed by The Mosaic Singers from Detroit, Mich., with 81.50 points. We were called next with 88.50 points! We had done what we set out to do, we defended the gold!

We were preceded by the Riga Gospel Choir who won 90.50 points, and the Grand Champion choir was a group from Indonesia with 92 points! They rushed the stage and took their trophy. We cheered for them in the moment of excitement. Their native flag was raised on the post as their national song played over the loud speakers.

We were pleased to win our fifth gold medal at the World Choir Games since our first competition in China!


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