Q&A with John Rosser; Artistic Director, World Symposium of Choral Music 2020 in New Zealand

The World Symposium on Choral Music is an eight-day festival held every three years, organized by the International Federation for Choral Music. The next symposium is scheduled for July 2020, to be hosted in Auckland, New Zealand. In anticipation of WSCM2020, symposium artistic director John Rosser, who also founded and directs the Auckland-based chamber choir Viva Voce, spoke with Chorus America about next year’s event and its theme, tangata whenua.

What does this theme mean?

Our WSCM2020 theme, tangata whenua (literally “people of the land”), derives from the name the indigenous Māori of New Zealand use for themselves because of their close association with the particular place in which they were born. It is an expression familiar to all New Zealanders, regardless of race, and carries the suggestion that we all are, or should be, guardians of our country’s natural resources and environmental wellbeing.

We know other peoples share these feelings for their home ground, but we are also aware that attitudes to land and territory can be rather more problematic. In New Zealand, land disputes between Māori and the European colonists are part of our ongoing history, and the effects of expansionism, colonialism, and dispossession are prevalent throughout the world. On the other hand, having a secure sense of place can be hugely positive—promoting identity, family, nurture, community, culture, celebration, healing, and freedom.

It is a theme that touches us all in some way and also contains a certain amount of tension, which can encourage more lively programming. Almost all 362 choirs and presenters who applied rose magnificently to the challenge and have presented us with a wide range of creative takes on the theme. In fact, we were spoiled for choice!

How did the selection of the theme come about?

Obliquely! As a conductor, I’ve often felt that contemporary choral music in particular is much better at depicting idyllic landscapes and the beauty of nature than it is at capturing the reality of urban life. Perhaps because of the church-based heritage of our art form, new compositions still revel in those long, arching, ethereal lines and satisfying, resolving chords and very often apply them to the countryside. The body of work that speaks of the city—of the joys and stresses that arise from living closely together in a more frenetic world—is much smaller.

So one initial driver of the theme was to encourage choirs to compare these two aspects of our experience—the world most of us live in and the one we think we’d like to escape to! 

The World Symposium of Choral Music 2020's theme, tangata whenua, is an expression of the indigenous Māori of New Zealand that translates to “people of the land.”


How will it be represented throughout WSCM2020?

From what we have already seen in their applications, the responses of the selected international choirs and presenters to our theme vary hugely! Some will sing about people and the land in Renaissance, Baroque, and Romantic music; others will commission new works, or entertain with vocal jazz, or adopt a “choral theater” approach. We will naturally feature music of our own land and of the South Pacific in general, and delegates will also experience kapa haka, the energetic, passionate song and dance performances that are so integral to Māori culture.

How does the theme relate to issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in New Zealand?

It is very much connected with them, as I think it is everywhere. I want to say that we are making good progress in our national discussions of these issues, but, as for any other society, the answers are complex and often fraught. Being a small country helps—we have reasonably direct access to our politicians!

How does this theme compare to the themes of past symposia?

Does it feel as if this one is any different or more timely? I don’t have a record of all past symposium themes, so I can’t compare ours with them, but we were certainly looking for one that was interesting and challenging and would inspire many different approaches. We weren’t aiming to be especially contemporary; in fact, we chose this theme for its timelessness. Recent atrocities in New Zealand, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere have made aspects of it topical, but the underlying threads have been there for centuries. The relationship between people and other people and the land we all inhabit will be with us for as long as we exist.

Mike Rowan is communications manager at Chorus America.