I must admit that I approached this year’s spring break Carthage Choir tour as an obligation to fulfill rather than as an adventure to enjoy. After all, we weren’t headed for New York City or Orlando, Florida – let alone Europe or the Far East. No, this tour would be comprised of performances in Milwaukee, Madison, and …. drum roll, please …. Des Moines, Iowa. The choir is on a three-year cycle … international tour / national tour / and regional tour, and this year’s was obviously the latter. Although we weren’t headed anywhere one thinks of as particularly exciting or out-of-the-ordinary, at least it would be a relatively brief tour, taking up only half of the school’s spring break, which in my book was a plus. But otherwise, this tour for me was a matter of “doing my duty.”
At least that’s how I felt at the outset.
By the time we were done, however, I was genuinely sad to see it end. It was so great to be in the company of these terrific young people – and a privilege to be part of some thrilling performances. And when you have that, who needs Orlando or Washington DC or Paris?
The choir’s tour actually began with two concerts in Milwaukee that I didn’t need to play for – so I didn’t actually rendezvous with them until Monday morning at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Brookfield, where the choir sang a well-received concert the night before. The choir had worked with a gifted guest conductor from Slovenia and had a terrific time, but they were going to be returning to repertoire from earlier in the year for the last two concerts, which made this Monday morning rehearsal really important. It was so nice to see the students awake, alert, and fully engaged- and sounding spectacular. And it was clear from the gracious remarks made by the church’s minister of music, Carol Peterson, that the choir had presented a truly remarkable concert the night before.
From the church, we proceeded to Brookfield East High School for a get together with their top choir. Their director mentioned that it happened to be Senior Skip Day, but almost all of the seniors in the group decided to skip Skip Day so as not to miss out on a chance to meet, hear, and sing for the Carthage Choir. It was a great time together and it started with the two groups warming up together; after that, the groups sang for each other, back and forth, and I was really impressed and touched by how attentively and appreciatively each group listened to the other. It was exactly what you would want such a time to be. (And by the way, I filled in for their accompanist so they could sing a beautiful work by Mozart. I always love riding to the rescue, so to speak.)
From there, we headed to Madison and settled in at Luther Memorial, a large Lutheran church located on the campus of the university – with a spectacular sanctuary that has to be one of the most beautiful places to sing in the entire midwest. Most of the students had never been there before and it was cool to see the look of awe on their faces as they first walked into that breathtakingly beautiful space- and even more when they unleashed a mighty chord and heard it reverberate up into the highest rafters.
One of the works on the concert is Jacob Gallus’s “Pater Noster” (a setting of the Lord’s Prayer) that is written in antiphonal style, which means splitting the choir into two or more small choirs that sing in dialogue with each other. As far as we can tell, this style of choral writing was created at the striking San Marco Cathedral in Venice, Italy because the sanctuary had multiple balconies, and composers like Giovanni Gabrieli realized that smaller choirs could sing from those balconies and create an extraordinarily beautiful and rich musical texture. Dr. Garcia-Novelli took one look at the Luther Memorial sanctuary, with its multiple balconies, and decided that we had to try splitting up the men and women and see if they could stay together even while singing from opposite ends of that huge space. And thanks to the clarity of his conducting and the focused attention of the students, the rehearsal went beautifully – and that night, those attending the concert got to hear this amazing work as its composer envisioned it. How exciting for them- and what a great history lesson for our singers!
The Carthage Choir shared the program with three splendid high school choirs, and those performances alone made for a terrific concert. They also set the bar of excellence uncommonly high, and the Carthage Choir rose to the occasion and then some. What a thrill to hear them in such a spectacular space.
As we headed off to Des Moines, Iowa the next day, I found myself worrying that the sanctuary of First Christian Church (the home church of Emma Terrell, a member of the choir) would be a disappointing letdown after having performed in as spectacular a space as Luther Memorial. As it turns out, this space turned out to be an almost better space in which to sing … in part because it wasn’t quite so reverberant, which allowed the choir’s more intricate music to be heard more clearly. It was also easier for the choir to hear itself, so their precision was quite extraordinary. In short, it was a perfect space for a choir concert.
By the way, it was really interesting to see all kinds of signs posted around the church that made it very clear that they take the matter of Social Justice very seriously …. especially when it comes to welcoming immigrants. It was a valuable reminder that one should be really cautious when it comes to making sweeping generalizations about – for instance – the people who live in the heart of Iowa and how they see the world.
We shared the program with one fine high school choir (in this case, the chamber choir of Des Moines Lincoln High School) and once again found a very high standard being set, especially in musicality, expressiveness, and blend. What a joy to take the stage with the Carthage Choir and have them sing so splendidly. Of the many CC performances that I have accompanied over the years, this particular concert ranks as one of the very best ever. I was honored to share the stage with them.
As I look back on this tour, I find myself thinking the most about these two concerts and the sheer excellence that this group demonstrated in every way- and a significant part of what carried them to such impressive heights was being brought to new places and spaces that could serve as potent inspiration. It was a valuable reminder that this is what should matter most with choir tours- not that you get to see a Broadway Show or get to visit the Smithsonian Institution or get to play at Disney World. Yes, those are delights that I enjoy as much as anyone – but that should not be the central reason why one undertakes a choir tour. It should be about the music and the music-making and the intense sense of togetherness one experiences when working together to attain such musical mountaintops. It was also neat to see how the choir responded to Dr. GN’s relentless drive to make each concert even better than the one before. It’s a reminder that beats the sweet satisfaction of surpassing one’s own excellence.
That being said ….. I’m also grateful for all of the fun that was part of this tour. The fun included the enduring tradition of Morning Ritual, which is something that has been occurring on Carthage Choir bus rides for at least 45 years. It begins with this spirited song: “Good morning to you! Good morning to you! We’re all in our places with bright shiny faces – and this is our way to start a new day!” followed by the whole choir bidding good morning both to the conductor and to the bus driver. (And this time around, they remembered to say good morning to me as well.) After a prayer (offered up by yours truly a couple of times) comes the newscast, the weather report, top ten list, bonzo awards, announcements from the choir president, and ‘Last night’ stories. It has evolved a bit over time, but the essential framework of it is largely the same as when all of this began – and I dare say that nobody can imagine a Carthage Choir tour without this bit of craziness.
I was glad that there was a couple hours of free time in both Madison and Des Moines. My Madison free time was spent with dad, Sonja and Nathan in a nice visit that included an absolutely delicious lunch at Sofra Family Bistro, which serves mouth-watering Mediterranean, Balkan and Albanian cuisine. (I ordered the Albanian Qebap: lamb and beef sausages. It was amazing.) As for the two hours we had in downtown Des Moines, I spent that time doing some shopping at a variety of wonderful little shops. By the way, the last place I stopped in caught my eye because of all of the colorful items that were in the front window- the kind of things that would look great in my crazy Carthage office. I didn’t realize what kind of store Liberty Gifts was until the clerk pointed out to me that they had an ‘adult room’ in the back. That was when I said thank you and was on my way! Otherwise, I spent most of my time at a wonderful pet store, a beautiful little used book store and coffee shop (called Plain Talk) and a famous Des Moines institution called Raygun, which creates t-shirts, posters, and other memorabilia that is seen all over the country, imprinted with fun sayings like “Iowa: 75% Vowels, 100% Awesome.” And all of this was in the shadow of one of the most beautiful state capitol buildings in the whole country.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the wonderful burger place where the entire choir ate lunch, on the recommendation of Emma: Zombie Burger and Shake Lab, which has a menu and decor that faithfully follows the zombie theme. The whole thing was a bit disconcerting for an old fogy like me, but there was no arguing with the food, which was sensational. (I almost said “to die for.”) I had the City Of Terror, which consisted of a half-pound beef patty, bacon, cheddar cheese and caramelized onions. It may be the best burger I have ever had. (And thanks to the generosity of a member of the Board of Trustees, Dr. GN was able to treat the entire choir.) And while we’re talking about Des Moines, take a look at a sign that I saw posted in several different downtown stores. The line at the top of it reads “Hate has no business here.” This was another nice reminder that one should not to make snap judgments or broad generalizations about the good people of Iowa.
If all of that wasn’t fun enough, the choir was able to enjoy wonderful ice cream treats at a place called Over the Top that is owned and operated by a past Trustee of the college. (After the twisted weirdness of Zombie Burger, it was great to shift gears and enjoy ourselves in a place that was sweet in more ways than one.) The choir sang for his wife’s funeral back in the fall, and his daughter was anxious to express the family’s appreciation by treating the entire choir to delicious ice cream. It was an absolutely marvelous to be welcomed into this lovely establishment and to enjoy whatever ice cream we wanted to try. (The way that they do it is that you order whatever flavor or flavors you want- and then on top of it you can have a tiny scoop of something else as a free sample. What a brilliant idea!) The students were deeply appreciative- and ended up serenading the owner and her employees. It was one of those priceless moments that was better than any script you could possibly write.
(In that final photo, Dr. GN is talking to the former Trustee.)
And if all of that weren’t lovely enough, my time in Des Moines included a delightful visit with a dear friend from Atlantic (who now lives in Urbandale.) Cami Stevenson Brock is the youngest daughter of Hal and Judy Stevenson, who were almost like second parents to me in Atlantic. It seems like yesterday that she was in elementary school …. and now she is a mother herself. I was so grateful for the opportunity to reconnect with her over some delicious meatloaf at the Downtown Diner.
So this tour may not have seemed all that spectacular at a glance …. but it turned out to be replete with what is most important for such tours: sharing magnificent music in great places, seeing places one has either never seen before or haven’t seen in quite some time, and just enjoying one of the best gifts that life has to offer: fellowship between friends, whether old or new or something in between. Choir tour is also one of those experiences in which you are part of something bigger than yourself- which also means that it can’t always be about you and what you want to do. It’s a perfect way to be reminded of the importance of patience, cooperation, and understanding- of being part of a team, and of being there for one another. (And what’s more: when the tour finished up, we had four days remaining in Spring Break to use as we please.) So I find myself very grateful indeed that I was a part of the Carthage Choir’s 2017 spring tour- and especially grateful to have experienced one of life’s sweetest blessings: the Pleasant Surprise.