Let The Games Begin

After hosting a string of successful events in recent years, Cincinnati has landed what will be its largest event to date: the 2012 World Choir Games.

Yet, Norma Petersen, one of the game's chief advocates, insists that the seeds for this opportunity were planted by an unlikely source: Cincinnati's poster boy for musical achievement, Nick Lachey.

More specifically, Lachey's personally selected amateur choir that won Clash of the Choirs, a 4-episode reality TV show sing-off that aired in 2007. When the World Choir Games selection committee caught wind of this display of the city's choral might via the internet, Cincinnati entered the committee's radar.

"When they saw that Lachey's choir had won the competition, they contacted

Cincinnati," says Petersen, a self-proclaimed "professional volunteer" and President of the Society for the Preservation of Music Hall. When the World Choir Games come to town in 2012, Cincinnati will have a chance to strut its cultural stuff and have a chance to flex its event hosting muscles for the world to see.

"When you bring something international to Cincinnati, then the world starts to look at Cincinnati," says Janet Hill, Director of Event Production and Project Management for the World Choir Games 2012.

Cincinnati was chosen from 50 cities around the world, and is the first US city to have the honor of hosting the World Choir Games, which have only been held in Europe and Asia until now, with this year's games taking place in Shaoxing, China.

Motivated by a desire to get more American choirs involved, Interkultur, a German organization and the selection committee for the games, saw a trip to the US as the best way to reach out. As such, Cincinnati is blazing a trail of sorts. But musical trailblazing is nothing new to Cincinnati.

"We've got a history with music that goes way back," Hill says.

For starters, Music Hall and the legendary May Festival, with roots in the Saengerfest, or "singer's festival," brought to Cincinnati by 19th German immigrants, and the legendary Cincinnati Pops Orchestra all attest to this. Hill sees all of this coming to a head with the World Choir Games in 2012, the perfect way to show off the city's musical heritage.

In the World Choir Games, known as the "Olympics of Choral Music," choirs compete for gold, silver and bronze medals in 29 categories that range from gospel and jazz to contemporary and folklore.  Over the course of two weeks in July 2012, as many as 200,000 spectators from around the world will flock to Cincinnati to watch 20,000 participants from 90 countries who will don locally flavored costumes and proceed to put on the world's premier vocal show.

"It's one huge festival that goes on for days," says City Manager Milton Dohoney. "It will be a real treat for the people of this region to be exposed to an event that has never been outside of Europe or Asia."

In total, over 300 competitions and free public performances will take place across the city's carefully chosen venues. Key venues will include the newly built School for the Creative and Performing Arts (the first K-12 institution of its kind in the country), Music Hall, Duke Energy Convention Center, Fountain Square, various churches around town, Kings Island, Devou Park, and the Emery Theatre, which is getting a total renovation at present.

Of the incredibly delicate venue selection process, Hill says that "the people who are touring the venues really know what they're looking for. All choirs that compete within a category have to compete in exactly the same situation."

Extreme care must be taken to ensure that acoustics, sufficient practice space and a slew of other details add up for each venue selected. Yet, much more than schools and churches with good acoustics were needed to secure the bid.

Ultimately, a group of hard-working Cincinnatians with a shared vision collectively won this huge success for the city over a courtship that lasted months and took place on two continents.  

"It was the coordinated approach that the city took," Dohoney says. "We had a wonderful partnership effort. There were a number of organizations, such as non-profit, public, private sector organizations all working in concert with the Convention and Visitors Bureau to make this appeal."

After Lachey's choir took Youtube by storm in 2007, the courting began in earnest when a small group of passionate Cincinnatians whisked the largely German-speaking World Choir Games selection committee on a compelling tour of Cincinnati's musical and German cultural heritage early last year.

"I was in charge of part of their tour when they first came," Petersen says. "Music Hall just blew them away."

The third and fourth graders of the local German Language School made a significant impact as well, when they took to the stage in the Emery Theater and performed in German for the selection committee, who then proceeded to chat smoothly in their mother tongue with the students.

The city's spot was finally secured when a Cincinnati delegation, led by the much applauded Venus Kent, flew to Austria and presented the city to the selection committee as a unified package: musical heritage, strong German cultural roots, a scalable city with an array of institutions and suitable venues and a proven capacity to host major events.

"The passion, the venues in place, our cultural history - if you put all these things together, it makes an extremely compelling package that just couldn't be beat," says Julie Calvert, Vice President of Marketing and Strategic Development, Cincinnati USA Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Sadly missing from the games will be one of its most vocal and passionate supporters, the late Erich Kunzel, the once legendary conductor of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, who died of cancer on September 1, 2009. The presence of Kunzel will be strongly felt, however, as he was named Honorary Artistic Director of the 2012 World Choir Games.

Kunzel's legacy will live on into the long-term future for Cincinnati and the World Choir Games will play a significant part in this. And the reach that the games play could extend far beyond music.

Ultimately, "when you're able to host and execute, with excellence, a large scale international event, that sends a message," Calvert says. "A message that that city is a contender, that city will make it successful."

This is exactly what the World Choir Games is poised to do for Cincinnati.

Pulling off the World Choir Games with panache would send the message to the world that Cincinnati "gets it." That the city has the cosmopolitan edge and the capacity and infrastructure to support world class events. This could open the door for Cincinnati to host more international events down the road. Calvert explains that Cincinnati's successful track record with big events has trained the city well to take on bigger things.

"How we as a city and as a region handle the execution of these events speaks volumes about our ability on a larger scale," Calvert says. And the chance to host other large scale events is just one potential long-term payoff of the World Choir Games.

"It will also give us the opportunity to cultivate some relationships from the business sector that we would not have been able to otherwise," Dohoney says. "It may also open the door to other kinds of exchanges in the future. You can't tell what it will lead to."

Whatever happens, Dohoney is confident that Cincinnati has already proven itself by coming this far.

"We competed internationally and we won," he says. "We should be proud about that."

Photography by Scott Beseler and Emily Maxwell

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