Catawba Singers travel to Europe

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 2, 2011

By Tonia Black-Gold
Catawba College News Service
Forty-two Catawba College students, members of the Catawba Singers, returned May 25 from a 10-day trip to Europe that included stops in four different countries — France, Switzerland, Austria and Germany. For some of the students, the trip marked their first plane ride or their first trip outside the United States. It was an eye-opening, life-enriching experience for them, and although their time abroad was brief, it will likely be viewed as a pivotal moment in each of their lives, when they discovered how large the world is, how varied its people are, and how finite their place in it.
The students performed 10 different times during their trip, mostly in churches, and their music wowed their audiences and served as a universal language. While applause is not typically expected in a church after a choir sings, that was exactly what was delivered after each of the Catawba Singers’ performances, even in Notre Dame, where the throng of tourists viewing the space stopped, made videos, and listened as the Singers gave their all on a Tuesday morning.
Day 1:The Catawba group flew from Charlotte to Paris on May 15. The group’s first official stop was the American Cemetery in Normandy. I had wondered ahead of this stop if the age of the students and their life distance from the reality of World War II would preclude any emotional responses they had to the place. Silly wondering – the students were as touched as all of the adult travelers accompanying them on this trip.
Visitors to the American Cemetery were touched by the Singers’ moving renditions of the “National Anthem,” “America the Beautiful,” and “Calling My Children Home,” with accompaniment by two fiddles. The visitors paused in their tours of the site to take photos of our group gathered and singing on the steps of the memorial there.
Another student, 2011 graduate Molly Williams of Galax, Va., said singing at the American Cemetery at Normandy was the most meaningful experience of the trip. “We always hear about what our soldiers have done for our country while overseas, but being able to see that place first-hand was an extremely humbling experience,” she noted. “It almost didn’t seem good enough that the only gift we had to offer was our music. However, I don’t know that I will ever think of the “National Anthem” or “America the Beautiful” in the same way again.”
Day 2:Tuesday, May 17 was the only free day of the trip for our group.We stopped in Rouen and the singers gave an impromptu performance in Notre Dame Rouen, the cathedral that Claude Monet made famous in his paintings by capturing it in different lights. This church existed in the 4th century and has stained glass windows dating to the 13th century.
We finally arrived in Paris in late morning and the students scattered in groups to take in the city. Unfortunately, most of the museums there are closed on Tuesdays and that prevented a tour of the Louvre, but many walked around its grounds and saw the famous glass pyramid. Others walked along the Seine, ate a croque-monseuir at a sidewalk café and did a little shopping.
Junior Katie Johnson of Myersville, Md., described the Eiffel Tower gleaming in the moonlight and called it “one of the most beautiful sights of my 19 years.”
Day 3: The highlight of our Day 3 that began in Paris had to be the Singers’ performance in Notre Dame. The Singers rehearsed for a little more than a half hour before performing in the famous space from the front of the nave. Visitors who were touring the cathedral paused to stand and listen in a rapt sort of silence, others took seats, made videos or took photos of the performance. As the notes fell silent, there was a heartfelt round of applause from these visitors that replaced the Singers’ voices.
One person in the audience was a Catawba College alumna, Doris Poulot ‘92, now an expatriate living three hours outside of Paris with her French husband and children. Poulot took the day off from her teaching job and made the train trip just to hear a group from her alma mater perform in Paris. She wiped tears from her eyes as she congratulated the singers, calling the performance “moving and wonderful.”
Sophomore Andrew Taylor of Concord spoke of being “overwhelmed with emotion” as he saw how the music was affecting some in the audience.
After the concert at Notre Dame, we spent almost five hours traveling from Paris across France to Strasbourg in the Alsace region.
Day 4:We boarded a bus and began travel through the Vosges Mountains to Lucerne. As we rode, we passed numerous castles atop the mountains and many vineyards. We made a stop along the famous route de vin (wine route) in the beautiful Medieval town of Riquewihr.
Catawba student Katie Higgins, a junior from Durham, reported that she was welcomed by a Holocaust survivor who told her that she loved Americans because they had liberated her town from the Germans’ grip during World War II.
We arrived in Lucerne, Switzerland around midday on May 19. Lucerne is the home of the oldest wooden covered bridge in Europe — built in the 14th century.
The Singers participated in a 5:15 mass at Jesuitkirche and performed a concert there afterward. Their voices filled the beautiful space and again, the reception to their performance was very warm. An administrator from Wingate University, in Lucerne with students from his institution, happened to attend the mass and hear the Catawba Singers.
Day 5 : We traveled to Wangen, a city first mentioned in the. 800s as “Wangun,” located northeast of Lake Constance in Germany. We arrived around midafternoon, and the bus was greeted by the students’ home stay families. After loading their luggage in the families’ cars, the students headed home in pairs with the families for early dinners before a rehearsal and an 8 p.m. performance in St. Martinkirche.
The Catawba Singers’ concert had been publicized by the city’s cultural office and the church was full by performance time. As the Singers sang the first several selections, showing their command of their voices and their broad repertoire, the audience’s interest and enthusiasm grew. Professor Oakley explained that it was around this time that the audience realized this was not going to be a typical concert.
Soloists in the group won the crowd over. They included Tevin Vincent of Salisbury singing “Old Man River,” Kristopher Watson of Voorhees, N.J., with his “Over the Rainbow,” Michael Stone of Erwin with “On the Street Where You Live,” and Michelle Chaffee of Holly Springs accompanied on fiddle by Nick Brouillette of Tampa, Fla., with “Laudate Dominum.”
The Singers received a standing ovation, and as they lined the entrance to St. Martin’s to meet and thank their audience, the crowd pressed Euros into the students’ hands in appreciation. The students expressed their appreciation to the town when they donated the funds they received to the local hospital.
Day 6: On Saturday, May 21, the Catawba group departed Wangen for a stop in Dachau and an overnight stay in Munich.
We arrived at Dachau just before 2 p.m. It was a solemn time for our group, and overwhelming for some. We entered the iron gates of what remained of the camp, passing the “Arbeit Mact Frei” (Work Makes You Free) sign as we entered.
Although many of the camp’s buildings are missing now, the “crematorium,” two barracks, several guard towers and the SS officers’ building remain. Today, a museum and auditorium are housed in the former SS officers’ building.
From Dachau, we made a short drive to Munich. The Singers sang from the galley of Holy Ghost Church during a 5:30 Mass.
Day 7: We traveled from Munich to Salzburg on a gloriously beautiful Sunday morning. The name of this largest city in Austria literally means “salt castle” and refers to the castle overlooking the city that was built in the 4th century on the ruins of a Roman fortress. The castle, Europe’s largest, today provides a stunning view of the town and city spread out below. We traveled from Munich to Salzburg on a gloriously beautiful Sunday morning. The name of this largest city in Austria literally means “salt castle” and refers to the castle overlooking the city that was built in the 4th century on the ruins of a Roman fortress. The castle, Europe’s largest, today provides a stunning view of the town and city spread out below.
Salzburg is the birthplace of Mozart and its 17th century Salzburg Cathedral, noted for its Baroque architecture, was where he was baptized, sang in the boys’ choir, and served as organist.
After a late morning rehearsal, the Singers and Professor Oakley went into the cathedral to participate in the 11:30 am Mass.
Sophomore Nicu Brouillette of Tampa, Fla., played the violin to accompany students Ginny Weant of Salisbury and Michelle Chaffee of Holly Springs to a Mozart composition, “Laudate Dominum.” As the piece concluded, Nicu had tears streaming down his face. He described the experience like this: “Playing in Mozart’s church was the most moving experience I have ever had while playing the violin. Not only was I able to play his music in his church, but I was able to be conducted by his successor, the director of cathedral music. I will never forget the moment when that director took my hand and said, ‘Bravo! Bravo!’ I was overwhelmed.”
Day 8:Rothenburg ob der Tauber was the site of the Catawba Singers final European tour performance and it was the last time that this group of students would make music together. That made the town’s medieval beauty almost pale in comparison to the beauty of the music performed on the evening of May 23 in Heilig Geist Church there.
Choir members grew a bit emotional as the concert progressed and those in the audience were told the reason — for the 11 seniors in the choir, it was the last time they would formally perform together as a unit. Professor Oakley explained why tears flowed and eyes were wiped as the concert concluded.
Day 9: On our last full day in Europe, we made an early departure from Rothenburg en route to Rudesheim with several surprise stops along the way. Our group made a lunch stop in the city of Mainz. This is where the first European books with moveable type were printed by Gutenberg.
The next stop was actually in Rudesheim. It was the Benedictine Abbey of St. Hildegarde, founded in the middle of the 1100s by a progressive-thinking nun and today famous for its fine wines. The Singers formed a circle and sang in the courtyard outside the Abbey’s church before moving inside it to sing a few more selections to appreciative tourists and a lone nun.
Our May 25 flight from Frankfurt back to Charlotte would be delayed by more than five hours and knew that meant that much of the next day would be spent in the airport. This seemed just a little anticlimactic after such a wonderful trip, but not one person complained.