Bussing Broncos around the Baltic

Sunday

 

On Sunday, we bid adieu—or “Viso Gero”—to the beautiful town of Birstonas in Lithuania, where we spent three days making new friends, enjoying the countryside, and making music. Though we didn’t want to leave, we were excited to travel to our first large city in the Baltics—Vilnius.

 

On our transit, we stopped at Traku salos pilis, “Trakai Island Castle.” It was built by a grand duke in the 16th Century, when Trakai was briefly declared the capital of Lithuania. Though we only had 20 minutes, we were thrilled to stop and captured some wonderful pictures.

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As we arrived in the city, our wonderful tour guide, Egle, began telling us about Lithuanian History, from the foundation of the city in the 14th century to the reconstruction after the end of Soviet Rule. She spoke to us about her experience as a “Grandchild of Lenin,” and the other titles the youth were expected to take as a young member of the Party. In her adult years, Egle participated in the crucial protests that liberated Lithuanians from communist rule. We also went up to one of the tallest buildings in Vilnius and got some wonderful shots.

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After we had lunch and did more sightseeing, we checked into our Rock and Roll themed hotel, which started playing Fleetwood Mac the minute we turned on the lights in our room. It just goes to show that even though music can be specific to one culture, it can also travel to all parts of the world.

 

After we had changed into our concert attire, we departed for our concert venue, which was the St. Catherine’s Church, and had the livest acoustics that any of us (Dr. Adams included) had ever experienced. Our sound reverberated for 3-4 seconds after we had stopped singing. This is fortunate, because we were all feeling tired from the last three days of nonstop concerts, and we trusted the space to carry our sound.

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When we opened the doors, we greeted each person with the Lithuanian greeting, “Labas Vakaras,” and had so many visitors that we ran out of programs. Even a few of our new Finnish choir friends were in attendance! As we began to sing, the atmosphere of the choir was one of trust. Not only is every person uplifting to one another, but also our sound has evolved to fit us like a glove. It’s much like a dance partner you’ve been with for years—you trust them to be completely with you through the most basic waltz to spontaneous movements.

 

Monday

 

The next morning, we departed for Riga, Latvia. On our transit, we made many stops, one of which was Rundale Palace. It was built in the mid 18th century by the Duke of Courtland, and was passed to Katherine the Great, The German Army, the Napoleon Army, Latvian Ministry of Agriculture, a school, and then finally the Soviet Union. The varying art styles reflects the frequent movement of power in Latvia.

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For lunch, we were served a meat that tasted a lot like chicken, but what many were surprised to find was actually rabbit. This was a first for many of us, though it was an idea that was hard to swallow.

We traveled for the rest of the day, and arrived at the University in Latvia to observe the rehearsal of Juventus, a community choir that sounded like anything but. Their sound was free and unified in a gorgeous tone that complimented both their Latvian folk repertoire as well as internationally known choral music. It was a pleasure hearing them and sharing pieces by Latvian and American composers. Additionally, we experienced they way they celebrate birthdays. You can find a video of it in the comments section.

 

 

 

Row the Boat – to the Baltics!

Greetings from the Baltics! We are happy to announce that the Western Michigan University Chorale has won First Prize in the Kaunas Cantat Grand Prix! Not only that, but we won several other awards. They are:

Gold Medal:

Main Competition Category

Spirituals Category

Modern Category

Dr. Adams also received the Conductor Award!

Overall, this has been an amazing trip. It was exciting to see the spirit of camaraderie. We enjoyed supporting the other choirs and were encouraged by their support of us. We even engaged in some late night singing with a choir of lawyers from Finland, who were our most vociferous cheerleaders throughout the duration of the competition.

Broncos & Fins

One of the great things about these kinds of choir festivals is that we are introduced to different choral tones and repertoire. Choirs from Serbia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Russia, Poland, and Finland each brought their own unique cultures, sounds, and national composers. The scores ultimately were ephemeral, but the spirit of love and learning will last for a lifetime. We greatly enjoyed learning from them and are looking forward to our choir exchange with the choir from the University of Riga, Latvia!

Take a Knee

Living in Lituva

It’s currently 8 a.m. at the time I’m writing this here in Birstonas. Most of the choir is off to a relaxing start of the day, some participating in sunrise yoga, led by our own Joel Synder, others enjoying aquatic aerobics led by our tour guide Egle, and those of us that are less active (myself included) simply relaxing around the resort and its outlying areas.

Yesterday was much more eventful than this morning. A large group of us went on a tour of the city with the aforementioned Egle. Here are some of the experiences we had.

 

 

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The tour group during our walk around the neighborhood. We learned about the historical and communal aspects of the town.

 

 

 

 

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There’s a park in town with a therapeutic walking path covered in rocks and wood of various sizes that act as a form of acupuncture for the feet.

 

Later in the day, we performed in the first round of competition in the Kaunas Cantat festival. We competed in three categories: Contemporary; Spiritual; and the main category, which has no genre requirements.

The emotions felt during and in between our competition sets were much different than those during the opening concert. The tried excitement was replaced with a tense anticipation, as we wondered if we would place or not. This tension had no effect on our sound, as we performed with a sense of fun and a feeling of freedom. There’s an example of our performance in the video below.

 

 

After we finished our last set, everyone’s eyes were filled with joy, stemming from the applause of the audience, and the confidence we had in our performance in all three sets. Being able to share American music with those that may have never heard it before was the most amazing experience to me. Being able to both share and experience culture is a truly fulfilling experience​ that I’m glad we were able to have.

Not long after performing we gathered in the main hall to hear the announcement of the finalists that will be performing in the grand prix. There wasn’t any stress, however, as we were the first finalists announced. Seeing the jubilation from the other finalists when they were announced put the importance of this festival into perspective.

In the evening, we got to experience a bit of local culture before we headed to dinner…

 

 

And while we were at dinner, we had an unexpected guest…

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All in all, it was a day full of beautiful sights, wonderful sounds, and experiences we will never forget. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

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SongByrds in the Baltics

It’s a little after ten in the morning here in Birstonas, Lithuania, where we arrived yesterday afternoon after over 24 hours of travel. We’ve eaten breakfast, and most of us are now getting ready for the full day of singing we have ahead of us at the Kaunas Cantat Choral Festival and Competition. After the experience we had last night singing for the festival’s opening concert, there’s an obvious low-grade buzz of excitement among the other singers I’ve seen so far this morning.

Last night, as we warmed up for the concert in the Birstonas Cultural Center’s main performance hall, there was a pretty odd mix of emotions swimming in most of us. Of course we were thoroughly exhausted after our grueling travel day; a lot of us had a tough time sleeping on our long-haul flight from Detroit to Frankfurt, Germany, and the result was a physically and emotionally drained group of singers who could hardly think about anything other than the warm beds waiting for us back at the hotel. But exhaustion aside, we’re singers at our very core, and the thrill of finally being at our first destination and doing what we came here to do was an automatic override to any other negative energy, or should I say lack thereof. I had a conversation with Dr. Adams, our director, as we were sitting in the Frankfurt Airport waiting to board our connecting flight to Vilnius. She, like the rest of us, wasn’t sure at all what to expect of this festival or the other participating choirs, and was both nervous and eagerly anticipating about what awaited us. But I’m sure she least of all of us was expecting the reception we got upon her final cutoff at the end of our last piece: applause that was not just polite, or even congratulatory, but downright electric. Being a performance major, after a while every performance, every applause, every bow starts to blur together until I forget which “defining moments” happened when. But I will never forget the face of one woman in the fourth row who did not stop beaming from ear to ear for a moment during our set, or that she was the first person in the audience to afford us a standing ovation with joy written on her expression all the while. A few others in the audience followed suit, but it wasn’t as if the whole audience leaped from their seats to applaud as we exited the stage. Either way, it was apparent that we had profoundly affected a great deal of people in that hall.

All of this I say without the smallest hint of pride or boastfulness; personally, I found that there were a great deal of things that were not up to personal standards in my performance, most being symptoms of sleep deprivation, and I’m sure if I asked other choir members they would say the same thing. But that’s just the thing! We were all sleep deprived, we were all drained by our experiences the twenty-four hours prior, and we still managed to make a deep impact with our voices, with our hearts, with every last bit of what we had left in us. We left it all on the stage, and anybody who saw us in the lobby after our performance could never have possibly known that we hadn’t slept in over a day, because the power of what we had just done erased any hint of discouragement or decay in spirit. That is the very essence of music, the very essence of what we’ve come here to do: create bonds that reach over language barriers or friendly competition or even global tension, to communicate with each other the things we cannot or will not say any other way. I can only hope that that power stays with us as we go and sing today: nine different pieces over three categories, with the goal of not only making it to the Grand Prix round of the competition, but to continue sending our message through this music that we have so painstakingly and lovingly prepared.

Lith-away We Go!

Yesterday evening, Millwood United Methodist Church of Kalamazoo hosted a send-off concert for our group, Western Michigan University’s University Chorale. And as we travel east on US 131, headed to Detroit to board our plane abroad, we reflect a bit on what this concert last night really meant.

 

As we took the stage, we looked out and realized that not only was the church completely full, but also that every seat was filled by our friends, family, church members, and community members. The sanctuary overflowed with a general feeling of excitement and community pride. The familiar faces, the intrinsically American music, and the prospect of leaving our home—they all made us realize how much the Kalamazoo community means to us. From our closest support system to first-time concert-goers, you all give us a reason to sing with the passion that we have.

 

As musicians, we constantly ask ourselves, “why music?” and the answer changes almost every time. Last night was one of those moments. We sing to educate and inform, to entertain, to cope, to remind, and to inspire. There are very few situations in which can one experience these things so intensely in the span of an hour, and a choral concert is one of them. That’s why we invest so much of ourselves in this choir and its music, and it’s why we’re traveling across the world to share these uniquely American experiences with a European audience.

 

Wish us luck! 18485643_10101615647990274_1574817700644606077_n