PIEDMONT -- The Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir has long recognized the value of touring as part of the choir experience, seeing it as providing an opportunity for choir members to interact with cultures around the world.
In 2009, the choir's ensemble, accompanied by Artistic Director Robert Geary, had the privilege of traveling to Estonia for their song festival called Laulupidu, to be among 30,000 singers performing before an audience of more than 100,000 people. Their remarkable journey and the festival in all its ramifications are the subjects of "To Breathe As One," a beautiful documentary produced by James Tusty and Maureen Castle Tusty, of Sky Films. The film will be shown June 28 in San Francisco.
As part of the ensemble, 39 choir members between the ages of 12 and 16 participated in the two-day cultural event that reflects the heart of the nation of Estonia. More than a concert, the song festival, in its 140th year, has remained constant as a vital component in maintaining the strength and national identity of a people facing cultural genocide.
"To Breathe As One" captures the power and inspiration of the festival and of voices joined en masse to be heard over past and present world events. Geary has participated in 2004 and 2009, and both times the entire Piedmont Choir group memorized and sang Estonian songs as part of a choir of 30,000, 95 percent of whom were Estonian. And for many of those songs, the entire audience of 100,000 joined in.
"It's a completely different-but-overwhelming experience," Geary said. "It's not so much that it was loud, although it was a very full sound, an amazing sound. It created an environment that somehow felt like you were a battery plugged into a battery charger; your soul is plugged into a battery charger."
Geary considers the invitation to participate a privilege, explaining that the song festival has been the main vehicle through which Estonians have sustained and identified pride in their culture and that inviting outsiders has been a psychological challenge.
"So when you're allowed to come in and experience that, it is deeply, deeply moving," Geary said. "You feel you are caught up in something much larger than yourself and that there is a profound human undercurrent that binds the whole thing together."
Tusty and Castle learned about the song festival when they produced another Estonian documentary, "The Singing Revolution" and recognized the importance of making the world aware of Laulupidu. "To Breathe As One" features many of the 2009 festival performances while it shares the history of Laulupidu against a backdrop of the major world events of which Estonia was a part.
Targeted for an American audience, the documentary features the Piedmont Children's Choir and their preparations for and journey to Estonia. Film crews went home with some choir members and interviewed them; they went to rehearsals and took footage of the group warming up, rehearsing and learning Estonian.
"We're in there more than I thought," Geary said. "Those of us in the Piedmont Choir are delighted to be a measurable part of the documentary."
The documentary demonstrates not only the power of singing but also the potential of human beings who sing, and the choir will be there to add their voices. "Through the film, you learn more about late 20th century history, about human occupation and liberation, and about the human spirit surviving through all the darkness and with song being the agent for survival," Geary said.
The Piedmont Choir is already looking ahead to the opportunity of taking a new ensemble group to Laulupidu in 2014.
"I'm thrilled that the next group of kids five years later will have this experience," Geary said. "Their lives will be so unalterably affected in a positive way."
"To Breathe As One," a documentary featuring the Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir, will be presented June 28 at the Delancey Screening Room, 600 Embarcadero Drive in San Francisco. There will be two screenings, 7 p.m. and 8:45 p.m., each preceded by a brief performance by the Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir, directed by Robert Geary, and followed by question-and-answer sessions with the filmmakers. Tickets are $20 for general admission, $10 for students and are available at www.brownpapertickets.com or by calling 510-547-4441.