W&L University Singers take third at international competition

The University Singers are the first American choir to compete at the Derry Choir Festival


University Singers perform at the festival’s gala and award ceremony as the first choir representing the United States. Photo by composer Seán Doherty

Catherine McKean, A&L Editor

On Oct. 20, the Washington and Lee University Singers, under director Shane Lynch, departed for Ireland to attend the City of Derry International Choir Festival (CoDICF). 

The choir received third place with a score of 89.7, following competition veterans Eller Girls’ Choir of Estonia and second-place Embla of Norway.

The University Singers are the first choir representing the United States to compete as finalists in the international competition, and were proud to share spirituals composed by American musicians Stacey V. Gibbs and Dr. Rosephanye Powell as part of their competition and gala set.

The Singers’ competition set, which was performed in front of judges on Oct. 22, included a 17th-century “Sanctus” by Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria, a 20th-century “Sanctus” by Swiss composer Frank Martin, a modern-contemporary piece titled “Snow Dance for the Dead” by Irish-native Seán Doherty and Stacey V. Gibbs’ American spiritual, “Ezekiel.”

The choir was awarded the Visit Derry Award for their performance of “Ezekiel.” The award is given to the group with the best competitive or non-competitive performance of the festival.

“Over the five days of the festival, the judges heard over 600 performances from 200 different choirs,” Lynch said at the fall choral concert on Oct. 25. “They chose to award ‘Ezekiel.’”

Gibbs, the composer of the piece, who had visited Lexington to work  with the choir prior to their departure, said he was extremely pleased and honored at the results. He is currently in the stages of writing an original composition for the Singers.

Many of the audience’s British and Irish listeners had never heard American gospel    music performed by an American choir before.

“It was really something new,” said         Matthew Budd, a member of the Welsh John’s Boys Male Chorus. “You Americans are so loud and proud, and I’ve never seen that much energy brought out by an ensemble like that.”

While in Derry, the choir also performed for other parts of the festival, including being featured as a guest performance in the National Equal Voice competition on Oct. 22. 

They also sang at St. Columba’s Long Tower Church as part of the festival’s Sacred Choral Trail and St. Mary’s Oratory in Buncrana for a community concert. Apart from their competition repertoire, they also sang an Irish melody called “The King of Love” and Dr. Powell’s “Hallelujah.”

“Singing at the Tower Church, an incredibly significant part of Derry and Irish history, was my favorite part of this trip,” said Michael McLaughlin, ‘23. “I firmly believe that worship is elevated with music, and being able to further the worship of this church that Sunday in a very American way was very powerful and awesome.”

When not performing, the choir members were encouraged to immerse themselves in Derry history and culture and meet up with members of other choirs. 

“We’re not really going to Ireland to compete,” said Lynch. “The competition is just a convenient way for us to be able to travel and share our music with others, which is really what it’s all about in the end.”

This sentiment was echoed by the choir, as members shared their favorite moments of the trip to their fellow students after returning to campus.

“I loved singing with the Welsh boys around the streets and in the hotel after the awards gala,” said Nat Bursett, ‘26. “They were so much fun, and it was so cool that we could share songs with each other, especially when there was one that [both groups] knew.”

“Meeting other choir people and being immersed in an environment where singing is something so natural and beautiful was the best,” said Jowi Chotkiewiez, ‘23. “It made the experience all the more fun this time around.”

This was the second time the University Singers traveled to Ireland this year, with the first being a regular performance tour during April. 

This year’s competition marks a return to normalcy from the years of restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The last in-person festival was held in 2019. CoDICF directors said they were nervous about the revival of the competition. 

“We felt like Noah sending out the dove to spread the news about his ark,” said festival director Dónal Doherty. “We weren’t quite sure if the dove was going to return with anything, but a flock of them came back to the festival this week, and it’s been truly inspirational.”

The festival was first introduced to the city in 2013 with the mission of promoting and developing choral music in a local, national and international context as well as driving community and audience engagement. The festival includes not just competitions, but workshops and live community concerts as well.

 It is the only event of its kind that exists throughout the United Kingdom, and attracts hundreds of audience members as well as participants from all over the world.

It will be a while before the Singers venture back to Ireland, since they cannot compete at the festival for another three years. But their performance in Derry has opened doors to new opportunities in the future. 

Before they had even landed back in the States, the University Singers were invited to the Cork International Choir Festival as well as another international choir festival in the Netherlands.

“Before we left, I said that we were not competing against the other choirs, we were competing against ourselves,” said Lynch. “We’ve never done this before, so we’re just trying to get a high enough score so that we can continue to qualify for these kinds of opportunities. We definitely achieved that score this weekend.”

Disclaimer: This writer is in University Singers, and participated at the Derry competition.