The Samford University A Cappella Choir swept the top awards at the CantaRode International Choir Festival in the Netherlands this past weekend. With a score of 95 points out of 100, they won first place among 13 choirs. They also won two other significant awards: the “Audience Award” and “Best Conductor” for Professor Philip Copeland, who has led the A Cappella Choir since 2010. They competed with 12 other choirs from 10 different countries including Sweden, The Netherlands, Belgium, Malaysia, Slovakia, Germany, Hungary and Estonia. The second prize went to the Stockholms Musikgymnasium Youth Choir and the University of Houston Concert Chorale came in third.
“This version of the A Cappella Choir completed the work that was before them,” said Copeland. “They set a new standard for Samford’s A Cappella choir; my hope is that it impacts their lives from this moment forward.”
CantaRode is a young international choral festival. Chamber choirs of high quality from around the world participate in the festival. The festival consists of a competition and several cultural-musical activities which are not judged.
“This was a validating moment to realize that high standards are still valued, and that hard work pays off,” continued Copeland. “But there is a step beyond the hard work, where passion, creativity, nuance, and artistry win the day.”
This competition win is especially significant because of the high quality of the choirs that were involved. “Going into the competition, the Sophia Chamber Choir from Ukraine was easily the favorite to win because they recently won the Tolosa Choral Contest and the European Grand Prize in April,” said Copeland. The European Grand Prize is similar to the Kentucky Derby; the choirs that participate in that competition are winners from previous competitions.
“We also knew that the University of Houston would bring a significant challenge,” said Copeland. “Their conductor, Betsy Weber, is an internationally acclaimed conductor and they have 40,000 more students to draw from than Samford."
“I was honored that Samford was on the same stage as the Ukrainians and the University of Houston. To best them in competition was an unexpected and remarkable accomplishment for our size school,” said Copeland.
The judges for the competition were highly accomplished conductors from five different countries that included Belgium, Slovenia, Venezuela, Finland, and the United States. A look at the judge’s scores shows that Samford was ahead in points during both rounds of the competition. Conductors had an opportunity to discuss their performances with the judges on the last day of the competition. “The judges were overwhelmingly positive in their feedback to us. It was a real moment - I realized that our choir had arrived at a new level of performance and musicianship,” said Copeland.
“As ambassadors for the Division of Music, the School of the Arts, and Samford University, the students in the A Cappella Choir exemplify what it means for our students to achieve at the highest level of musical artistry. One of the concert hosts at Our Lady of the Pottery Church, Dirk Vande Woestyne, commented that the ensemble ‘performed at a quality level unknown to us,’ resulting in ‘a concert about which we will talk and refer for a long time to come,” said Joel Davis, interim chair of the Division of Music.
The Samford A Cappella Choir was founded in 1939 and is featured throughout the year on campus at commencements, convocations, Hanging of the Green, concerts and Vesper services. Members include both men and women from across the Samford campus who rehearse every day of every semester.
The competition was the final stop of a 12-day trip to Belgium and the Netherlands for the A Cappella Choir and its first international tour since 2018. The group toured and/or performed in Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp in Belgium. One of the highlights before the competition was an invitation to perform at the historical celebration of the “Cathedral of our Lady,” also known as “De Kathedraal.”
Copeland was also appreciative of the additional faculty members who were part of the trip. “The Samford voice faculty is the most supportive group of colleagues that I have ever encountered. Sharon and Dan Lawhon go on every international choir trip. Both work with tremendous diligence on these journeys, sacrificing their time/talents for Samford students. Newcomer Cindy St. Clair pulled her hair back when a warrior was needed and gave strong leadership and support to students and conductor at all times. I am indebted to all three of them,” said Copeland.
This competition was the third international win in a row for the A Cappella Choir. In 2018, they won the Laurea Mundi Competition in Budapest, Hungary and the Šiauliai Cantat (Lithuania) in 2016.
“International tours and competitions have been a hallmark of my time at Samford,” said Copeland. “The competitive element helps us become a better musical ensemble, but that isn’t my primary motivation in these trips. Our hope is that Samford students gain a new perspective about the world and their place in it. These gatherings teach us all that we are more alike than we are different, a perspective that is sorely needed in the world today.”