PIEDMONT -- The Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir Ensemble swept the competition from 11 countries from all corners of the world at the Fifth International Youth Music Festival in Bratislava, Slovakia, last week.
The 42-strong choir won first prize and took the gold in all three competitive categories -- Children's Choir, Gospel & Spiritual and Contemporary. In addition, the choir received the Grand Prix Award as overall winners of the event.
"We're thrilled and so proud of them," said choir Marketing Director T.J. Togasaki. "The kids did a lot of hard work over the last year."
She said the youngsters, who just returned home Sunday night, are over the moon.
"They talked a lot about teamwork, how this was possible because everyone brought their A-game," Togasaki said. "It's pretty impressive for a bunch of 12- to 16-year-olds."
Choir member 16-year-old Rachel Adams has been singing with the Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir for 10 years and is thrilled that they won first place at the festival.
"We were so excited, hugging each other and crying," Adams said. "We were really excited that all our hard work paid off."
She says she's been singing with many of the choir members for seven years and they are close friends.
"It's an incredible joy to sing with my friends and make music," said Adams, who also takes voice lessons at school and plays flute in the Berkeley Youth Orchestra. "It's great to express myself through music and singing."
Togasaki said the Piedmont singers edged the competition because the singers were well rehearsed and their performances were "tight and polished."
"The kids throw their heart into communicating what's happening in each piece, whether it's light or intense," Togasaki said. "Many of these children have been in the choir since they were 6 or 7 years old. It's a priority for them and a big part of their identity."
The choir sang a repertoire that included the works of Bay Area composers Mark Winges, Sue Bohlin and Jonathan Goodwin.
"It's an honor to hear one's music performed with such accuracy, plus heart and soul, which are the added ingredients needed to win over the audience and judges," said Bohlin, who is also the choir's accompanist.
The choir's Artistic Director Robert Geary emphasized that the choir's achievement is a team effort.
"We share this award with all the choir supporters who believe in this amazing organization, the parents who understand the benefits for their children in this type of cultural exchange and the brilliant conductors and singers in our choirs," Geary said.
The choir competed in the famous Hall of Mirrors in Bratislava's Primatial Palace, which opened in 1781. The competition has become one of the premier European festivals dedicated to youth music. This year, choirs came from Belgium, China, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Mexico, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Slovenia and South Africa. The Piedmont choir tours every year, Togasaki said, though not always for competition.
"It's a really great opportunity for the kids to visit different countries and meet other children who love to sing," Togasaki said.
During the Slovakian festival, Piedmont choir members stayed at the homes of a youth choir from Graz, Austria.
"In 2012, the Austrian choir stayed with our kids during the Golden Gate Festival that we host every three years," Togasaki said. "It's a nice exchange and a chance for the kids to see their friends again -- many of whom keep in touch via email and Facebook."
Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir, established in 1982, is open to children ages 4 through 18. For more information, visit www.piedmontchoirs.org.