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New Avenues: Rolf Brulhart and the future of the Vancouver Swiss Choir

By Malcolm Morgan (Canadian Section Editor;
Posted May, 2006 

For a choir that’s been around 40 years, what ground is there left to cover?     

Looking to the future 

         Rolf Brulhart, Vice President of the Vancouver Swiss Choir, is animated as he discusses Swiss culture and his choir. 

         He continually rustles the flyers advertising the choir’s upcoming festival performances; one at the European Festival on May 27th in Burnaby, BC; the other at the choir’s annual Spring Concert on June 2nd at The German Haus in Vancouver.  He promptly furnishes me with complimentary tickets for both.  

         And during our discussion, he often leans toward me to make an emphatic point, planting his finger down on the cafeteria table. 

         He has a clear and understandable investment in this well-established choir.  

         The Vancouver Swiss Choir was founded in 1966, and has continually offered an engaging sample of traditional Swiss music to the public of BC’s Lower Mainland.  The choir has also occasionally co-ordinated performances with the Swiss choir in Portland, an invitation that Brulhart says was “an honour,” having come from this traditional and respected Swiss choir of the region.  In addition to regional appearances, Brulhart mentions that he would ideally like to take his choir on tour in Europe. 

         Brulhart is thankful for any performance opportunities the choir gets because maximum exposure of the choir’s work will draw new members to it.  This appeal to the next generation is important because the founding generation, which has done the work to bring the choir to its present point, is passing the age of active participation.  New blood is essential – and Brulhart is willing to go to some unusual lengths to win it. 

Extension or Extinction              

      “The second generation, they don’t have the inclination,” says Brulhart of the younger generation’s hesitance to join the Swiss choir.  He explains that busy Swiss-Canadian kids living in a distracting consumer culture don’t find much meaning in traditional Swiss musical fare, such as yodeling. 

         “To sing is hard work – and committing yourself to practicing once a week is hard as well,” continues Brulhart, emphasizing that there has to be something in it for the young people if they are to participate.

          Brulhart’s formula for winning youth loyalty is to, first of all, give them the spotlight.  “You have to give young people the stage,” he says, elaborating that the veterans can’t afford to make the performances about themselves if they hope to gratify young members sufficiently to keep them. 

           Secondly, he thinks the choir has to invite guest musicians who will be of interest to the young.  The choir has already invited a traditional Swiss instrumental group for the May 27th performance (Familienkapelle Walker, from Gstaad, Switzerland).  But Brulhart’s children are urging him to invite their favourite Swiss rap groups.

           Brulhart says it’s necessary to change “this old-cheese image, this numbered- bank-account image of Switzerland [that] is embedded in the world.”  So, he’s perfectly willing to shake things up in order to draw in both new participants and new audience members – even if it means shocking and losing some of their old audience members. 

           To change the image, says Brulhart, they require the new cultural influences, but also a macro decision on the direction the choir (and its associated guest performances) will take. “You have to decide which small part of Swiss culture you will highlight,” says Brulhart, explaining that the choir can only ever be a glimpse of the larger, multi-faceted Swiss culture. “Will you teach them (High) German songs, or Swiss (German), or Italian, or French, etc?  Do you want to create a Heidi group or a Zurich rap group?”     

Swiss pride, Swiss posterity

       “The Swiss have a huge identity,” he says. “They’re very egotistical.” 

          He says that a large part of their self-appointed stature among European nations comes from their status as a genuinely multicultural state; Switzerland is divided into French, Italian, Swiss-German and Romansch-speaking subcultures. These four Swiss communities manage to coexist (even amidst their individual egotisms) in what is one of the more prosperous countries of Europe.  

          While the cultural breakdown of Switzerland itself is de facto multiculturalism, what Brulhart and his colleagues try to accomplish with their choir is what he calls a “soft multiculturalism.”  This soft focus is what works in Canada, he feels, where different cultural communities can “hear each other’s music and taste each other’s food, but that’s about all.”  This buffet-style multiculturalism manages to give voice to each cultural tradition and language group without bringing political considerations (such as that between the Balkan communities) into the forum.

            In terms of the management of the choir itself, soft multiculturalism demands a careful arrangement of performance material so as to give due representation to the participants, who are from different Swiss language groups.  The choir’s Music Committee, comprised of members from each Swiss subculture, selects the songs for performances with a mind to fairness for each group.  

           The choir actually sings in seven languages: the expected French, Italian,

Swiss German and Romansch, but also in High German, Latin, and English.  The language profusion is impressive and workable as far as the older people are concerned, but actually presents another barrier to youth enrolment.  Singing “songs in languages they don’t understand,” says Brulhart, doesn’t interest the youth any more than yodeling does.

           Brulhart and company will have to change both the old-cheese Swiss image and the old-cheese structure of the choir itself.  It’s a tall order, especially since Brulhart’s ideas for reaching down new cultural avenues mean the choir executives will have to please an entirely new Swiss subculture: that of their Westernized youth.   

            Whether this initiative will work or not depends on the choir’s commitment to Brulhart’s vision – that is, extending itself in regard to both touring and performance material.   

            If their commitment to these efforts is low, then they can look forward to admitting more non-Swiss participants, as they have done already, out of necessity to keep their ranks (musically, albeit not culturally). 

            Brulhart recommends trying all of his ideas, and seeing which ones make an enduring difference. “From all my years of cultural experience and observation,” he concludes (Brulhart has a background in sociology), “there is one thing I’ve learned: time will show what survives.”

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