Missoula's International Choral Festival opened in Caras Park on Wednesday with a performance of Estonian folk songs by the Eller Girls’ Choir.

The group had come halfway around the world to perform in Missoula, and choir member Sirli Kooskora was excited about their offerings, a jaunty collection of songs by Veljo Tormés, and two others entitled Jooksupolka and El Hambo.

“These are all cheerful and fun songs, so we enjoy it,” she said after the 17 singers, conducted by Külli Lokko, had finished. She added, “If you go to a competition, you do complicated pieces. This is like a breath of fresh air.”

The International Choral Festival is "dedicated to promoting artistic excellence, global understanding, friendship, and goodwill through choral music," according to its website.

Wednesday, groups from Germany, China, Finland, Spain, Hungary, Indonesia and the United States were waiting to take the stage for the opening concert at Out to Lunch. In all, 11 groups — three from the United States and eight from other countries — will perform at venues around the city through Saturday.

The International Choral Festival has brought these offerings to Missoula every three or four years since 1987, when it was founded by University of Montana music professor Donald Carey. Former Sentinel High School music director David Heidel was involved from the start and has served as the festival’s artistic director since 2007.

“It’s just so exciting to bring these choirs to Missoula,” Heidel said at the concert. He travels often to other music festivals and considers the Garden City’s event unique in that “we involve the community ... it’s an incredible community effort.”

Some of the visiting musicians are staying in UM dorms; others are staying with local host families. The musicians perform in traditional venues around Missoula, Seeley Lake and Polson, and some of the groups were also scheduled to go on a “choir crawl” Wednesday afternoon, singing at downtown businesses.

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In addition to adding events like these, Heidel said, “I believe we’ve raised the level of quality choirs that come here.”

He’s personally recruited some of the visiting groups. Heidel first heard the Eller Girls’ Choir at a festival in Ireland and “approached the conductor and convinced her that they had to come to Missoula, and so they did.”

Performing at the festival for a second time, the singers drew hearty applause from more than 200 people who came to the opening concert, sponsored by the city of Missoula.

“I’m so excited to come back,” said Kooskora, a resident of the city of Tartu who last performed at the 2013 festival with a different Estonian choir. She was glad to return to what she called Missoula’s “picture-perfect mountain views,” and its residents.

“They are so welcoming and kind,” she said. “It has such a good vibe.”

The International Choral Festival will host performances around the city through Saturday, July 20. A $20 festival button guarantees admission to all events. For more information and a schedule, visit choralfestival.org.

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Higher education reporter for the Missoulian