Broncos in the Baltics

Posted by Savannah Gonsoulin on Jun 15, 2017 12:14:10 PM

A bird's-eye view of Vilnius, Lithuania, from the bell tower at Vilnius University.


It’s been about two weeks since the University Chorale returned from our ten-day competition and concert tour of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Chorale is made up of singers from all different backgrounds and walks of life, but I think it’s safe to say that this tour was the adventure of a lifetime for every single one. We all set out on this adventure wanting the same things: to forge new connections with singers from around the world, to experience a set of cultures with deep roots in the choral tradition, and to better ourselves as musicians through exposure through these cultures. But I don’t think that any of us could have anticipated the life-changing experiences that waited for us there in the Baltics, or just how far beyond our own expectations this trip would take us. 

Our journey began on May 17th with a red-eye flight from Detroit to Frankfurt, Germany. After my experience studying abroad in Austria last summer, I was at least a little bit acclimated to the struggles associated with overseas flying, but for many members of the choir it was the longest or even the very first flight they had ever been on. After our five-hour layover in Frankfurt (where I was very excited to finally use some of the rudimentary German I had learned this semester), we boarded the plane for a short flight to Vilnius, Lithuania. There we met Eglė, our guide for the entirety of our tour. As we left the airport and rode the bus through the Lithuanian countryside, Eglė was a wealth of information about the rich history of the country. She spoke at length about their fight for independence from Russia, which was finally won in the 1990s after a fifty-year occupation. Though we were already somewhat aware of the importance of singing in Baltic culture, hearing first hand about the vital role that choral music played in the fight against the Russians’ suppression of Baltic heritage was eye-opening. Despite having traveled for almost twenty-four hours straight, the anticipation of experiencing for ourselves a vibrant and crucial aspect of Lithuanian culture kept me and many others awake on the bus, as Eglė imparted on us some of her own experiences during both the occupation and the revolution.

A post-performance huddle at the Birstonas Cultural Center following our final competition set at the Kaunas Cantat.


When the bus arrived at our hotel in Birštonas, a small but beautiful resort town where the Kaunas Cantat competition was being held, we had to hit the ground running. We checked into our rooms and had about two hours before meeting back in the lobby in full concert dress, ready to walk to the Birštonas Cultural Center to warm up and sing at the competition’s opening ceremonies. At that point, those of us who weren’t lucky enough to catch some sleep on the plane had been awake for about twenty-six hours, and even those of us that had slept were still drained to the core. I, myself, had an awfully tough time focusing on anything other than the bed that waited for me back at the hotel. But I think the thrill of finally being where we were meant to be and doing what we came to do had, at least momentarily, overridden our fatigue. From our director Dr. Adams’ first downbeat, it was as if we were consumed by not only our determination to prove ourselves as the first American choir to compete in the Kaunas Cantat, but more importantly our desire to just make our shared passion for choral singing heard. I can’t remember many musical details about that performance specifically, but I know we must have made a profound impact; I will never forget that one woman in the third or fourth row who didn’t stop beaming from ear to ear from the moment we opened our mouths, or the electric applause from the audience as we walked offstage. This, of course, isn’t to say that this performance was perfect or even our best, in fact I’m pretty sure that I personally made the most mistakes of any concert on the tour that night (I blame sleep deprivation). But there’s a certain fire when a choir puts their entire collective spirits into the music that cannot be matched by any level of preparation or mental engagement, and I think that we carried that fire with us all the way through tour.

The next day was the first official round of the competition. We sang in three categories: Contemporary, African-American Spirituals, and the main category which had no specific criteria other than fitting within a twelve to fifteen-minute time limit. Competition day was a bit of a blur to me, if I’m being honest, but at the end of it we were overjoyed to find out that our scores qualified us for the Grand Prix round on the following day. While we were waiting for the finalists to be announced, a group of us decided to grab a celebratory drink in the café bar within the cultural center. There we met some members of Lain Huuto, a choir entirely made up of Finnish lawyers based in Helsinki. They were dear friends to us for the rest of the festival, and when we found out we had both made it to the Grand Prix, they cheered as loud for us as they did for themselves! As we were leaving the hotel for dinner later that evening, we were stopped by a group of traditional Lithuanian musicians and singers who had heard us singing outside earlier and wanted to share their own music with us. For twenty minutes, they sang folk songs and danced with us, a moment that was easily my most beloved memory from our time in Birštonas.


Members of Chorale celebrating through song with Finnish choir Lain Huuto, after our respective wins at the Grand Prix.


After the brutally long two days we’d had so far, the free time we had the next day before the Grand Prix concert was a much-needed respite. There was no shortage of things for us to experience and discover: nature hiking, bike riding, restaurants, museums, and even a gorgeous spa inside our own hotel. Well-rested and ready, we went back to the cultural center. Because Dr. Adams wanted to look over the judge’s comments from the previous days’ performances to gauge which pieces would be best to present for the final round, we didn’t know what we would be singing for the Grand Prix until about two hours before the concert. We spent some time rehearsing the pieces based on the critique we had received until we had done all we could to polish the music to a gleaming shine… and then we sang. And somehow, it was enough. Somehow, a college choir from a public university in Michigan rose above choirs from Serbia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Russia, Poland, and Finland to win the Grand Prix at a competition in which no American choir had ever been. Only it was never about rising above one another. it was about joining together and sharing in a mutual passion in a place where choral singing is at the very core of their way of life. This again became apparent that night, as we reveled with the members of Lain Huuto (who had placed in the Grand Prix as well), singing with and for each other, celebrating each other and our newfound friendship through song. This coming together over music was a constant refrain throughout the rest of the tour.


The fruit of all our collective efforts... the Kaunas Cantat Grand Prix trophy.

In the morning, it was time to say goodbye to our beloved Birštonas and a lot of us were wondering how we could go up from there, after starting the tour on such an incredibly high note (no pun intended). We headed back to Vilnius, where we would be giving a concert that evening at St. Catherine’s church, a beautiful Baroque church built in the 1740s. Eglė, a Vilnius native, led us through a tour of the the city including the Old Town, parts of which had been standing for seven hundred years.

The concert that night was a decidedly different experience from our performances on the tour thus far. Without the weight of competition on our shoulders or the remnants of jet lag fogging our minds, we could just make music simply and freely. This was exciting for all of us, having recently discovered that we make our best music when we can sing for ourselves and ourselves alone. After singing in the cultural center auditorium, which was a very acoustically dead space, getting to sing in a vast, domed sanctuary was a treat, albeit a hard transition to make. After the mind-boggling experience at the competition, I wasn’t sure if this concert could measure up despite the immaculate setting it took place in. But to my disbelief it only ever kept getting better and better; every single time we revisited a piece in performance there were new moments that I fell in love with. Looking out into the audience, I saw the same kinds of expressions of joy that I couldn’t forget from our first concert at the Cantat. It served to remind me just why I decided to study music in the first place: for me, the endless reward comes not from personal gratification but what we can bring to others with what we do.

That was our only full day in Vilnius. The next morning, it was time to head to the second country on our tour: Latvia. On the way we stopped for a tour of the Rundale Palace, a stunning Baroque gem that was designed by the same architect that designed the Hermitage palace in St. Petersburg. We reached Riga, Latvia at about 7:30 PM and headed directly to the University of Latvia to sit in on a rehearsal of Juventus, a community choir that sounded like anything but. I found out later that they had won the Kaunas Cantat several years prior and I wasn’t the least bit surprised. Their sound was beautiful and versatile, as they sang through Latvian folk songs as well as internationally known repertoire like “Stars” by Latvia’s own Erikš Ešenvalds. Naturally, their director was rehearsing them in Latvian so I couldn’t actually understand a word they were saying. Still, I knew exactly what she was trying to get them to do by her gestures and the sounds that they produced in the choir, techniques I had seen our own Dr. Adams use many times. I’ve always thought that “music is the universal language” was a bit of a cliché, but I had to admit that it was on my mind all throughout the rehearsal.

The next morning held a tour of Riga, another stunning city. We explored the parks, the Art Nouveau district, and the many grand cathedrals and churches of the Old Town including St. John’s, where we gave our final concert of tour later that evening. The afternoon we had to ourselves to experience more of what we wanted in the city. Some shopped, others explored the many museums and parks. A few of my friends and I attended a short organ concert at a stunning cathedral that held what was the largest organ in Europe when it was built and still remains the largest organ in Latvia. It was magnificent to say the least, and the music put me in a perfect headspace as we went back to the hotel after dinner and prepared for the concert.

An audience perspective shot during our concert at St. Catherine's, Vilnius, Lithuania.

This being my final performance with the University Chorale, I was sentimental as we headed to St. John's to warm up. Like St. Catherine’s in Vilnius, the acoustics of the sanctuary were open and free, as though we could have barely opened our mouths to sing and still be heard for miles. Being a music performance major, I’m onstage so often that after a while all the bows, the rounds of applause all begin to blur together until I can’t even remember which “defining moments” happened when. But there is one moment from this concert that I’m sure will stand out in my mind for a very long time. Just after starting William Byrd’s “Ave verum corpus,” Dr. Adams stopped conducting, stepped into the choir, and began to sing with us. In most other situations, this would have been very scary; performing a piece without a conductor is always risky. But we’d been singing this piece since nearly the beginning of the school year, it had become so engrained in us that it was now completely organic. As she stepped away from her music stand, we turned into each other and it was as though the audience completely disappeared. It was like magic; we had no choice but to trust each other wholly, set aside our individual egos and allow ourselves to become a single organism. We made eye contact with one another, we all felt what each other was feeling, and not a single cutoff or breath or articulation fell out of place. It was a powerful moment for us as a group, and as the final note faded away the audience came back into view. After that, the rest of the concert felt effortless, and I found so much joy in singing the music that I forgot that I was saying goodbye to many of these pieces, possibly forever. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect or fulfilling end to my 3 years in Chorale.

The facade of St. John's church in Riga, Latvia, at sunset.

Over the next two days, we experienced more sights in Riga and our final stop of the tour, Tallinn, Estonia. Our tour through Tallinn proved to be the most interesting for me, as it was the oldest of any of the cities we had been to. While the other cities had first begun to flourish during the Renaissance, Tallinn was established even in the Dark Ages, with some buildings we visited dating back to the 13th century. But the highlight of our short stay in Tallinn was our visit to the Estonian Song and Dance Festival grounds. Each of the Baltics hosts their own song and dance festival every few years, massive celebrations of their heritage through music. The Estonian festival is the largest of the three, with over 100,000 participants every single year. Since the Russian occupation, the festival has taken on extra significance as it was one of the seeds of the Estonian singing revolution. The festival grounds are designed to hold forty thousand people on the auditorium stage alone, and another seventy to eighty thousand people in the lawn. It was empty when we visited, but even the thought of a hundred thousand people together there, defiantly singing in unison against oppression itself, was incredibly powerful.

Our initial plan was just to visit the festival grounds for a few photos, but after a bit of convincing Dr. Adams allowed us to go down to the stage and make our own musical mark there. It seemed fitting that in a place representing national pride we should sing something uniquely American, so we chose an arrangement of the folk tune “Shenandoah,” along with the Western Michigan University Alma Mater. I wondered as we were singing how far our thirty-nine voices carried, or if the magnitude of what we had just made ourselves a part of weighed on anybody else the way it did on me. It seemed a perfectly fitting capstone for our tour.


The Estonian Song Festival grounds in Tallinn. The domed stage alone can hold up to forty thousand singers.

Over the course of not just the tour but all our rehearsals leading up to it, two words have been consistently running through my mind: diplomacy and unity. As someone who tries as hard as possible to keep up with current events, I couldn’t ignore that there was distinct diplomatic significance in what we were doing. The world is tense right now. Sometimes I worry about where we’re headed, if we’ll ever be able to put aside even the smallest differences for the sake of peace. Back in September, when we first began rehearsing for this tour, I was mostly just determined to defy what I thought was the (negative) European stereotype of an average American. As the year progressed and events unfolded around the world, that shallow determination manifested itself into something much deeper: a resolution to reach out the hand of goodwill to everyone we met as we toured, not just as an American but as a fellow member of humanity. This resolve grew as I learned more and more just how profoundly important choral singing in these cultures; we couldn’t have possibly been in a better position to share this message of unity with the Baltic people. Looking back on it all, I truly believe that we got that message across through our passionate approach to the art of choral music, and through all the people we impacted and friends we made along the way.


University Chorale poses for one final photo together at the Estonian Song Festival grounds. We're huddled around a statue of Estonian composer and singing revolutionary Gustav Ernesaks.



This post is part of the College of Fine Art's Summer 2017 blog series, Going Places. Enjoy more summertime student blog posts by subscribing to the Fine Print or clicking the image below:

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Topics: School of Music, Student Experience, The Student Experience, Globally Engaged, CFA Students in Summer, Going places - Summer 2017

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