The Vassar College Choir performs at the Hotel de Talleyrand in Paris.
Choirs Regale European Audiences
For last month’s spring break, more than 60 Vassar choir members traveled to England and France for five performances spread across Oxford, London, and Paris. By many measures, it was a landmark trip. For sheer number of students, it was the largest trip in the history of the choral program. It was the first time three choirs—the Vassar College Choir, the Women’s Chorus, and the Madrigal Singers—embarked on a trip together. And the trip was the first abroad in four years.
Most performances lasted one hour—20 minutes for each chorus. Rehearsal and performance days were interspersed with free days to allow students time to explore the cities.
For the wide-ranging set lists, “we brought British, French, and American music over there, sharing these different musics with each other,” says Christine Howlett, director of choral activities. Composers included Thomas Tallis, who worked at Oxford’s Christ Church Cathedral in the 16th century, as well as contemporary British composer Tarik O’Regan, who currently lives in New York City. (Vassar has commissioned O’Regan to write a new piece for the college, which the choir will begin rehearsing in August 2012 and debut at Modfest 2013.) American composers included Samuel Barber and William Billings, and with a nod to March as Women’s History Month, the set lists also included the work of Rebecca Clarke and other prominent female composers.
The choirs performed in “some pretty amazing places,” says Howlett. Consider Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford. “You can’t just walk in there and perform,” she explains. “You have to send an audition tape. In a country that prides itself on its choral tradition, as an American choir coming over, I wasn’t sure we’d get to perform there, but we were good enough.”
In London, Vassar’s choirs regaled audiences at St. Andrew Holborn as well as St. Bartholomew the Great. Founded in the 12th century, it is one of London’s oldest churches, in continuous use as a place of worship since at least 1143. Movies such as Shakespeare in Love and Four Weddings and a Funeral have filmed there. “It’s a beautiful space with great acoustics … and very cold,” says Howlett.
In Paris, the UNESCO Secretariat hosted an abridged 30-minute performance. Giving the introduction, UNESCO’s director general invoked a Vassar connection—C. Mildred Thompson, Class of 1903. Thompson, who taught U.S history at Vassar and then became the college's dean, was on the committee that recommended the formation of UNESCO in the 1940s. She was the only educator on that committee. At the UNESCO building, the choirs performed in front of a rare unsigned Picasso, a very large wall mural.
The grand tour concluded with a gala performance at the George C. Marshall Center in the historic Hotel de Talleyrand, cohosted by the U.S. ambassador to UNESCO David Killion and Vassar trustee Anthony Friscia ’78. “Each place was a very different experience, and very memorable,” says Howlett.
An important aspect of the trip was inclusiveness, thanks to financial aid. The Music Department put up funds for sophomores through seniors, while an anonymous alum generously donated $15,000 earmarked specifically for freshmen members of the choirs. As a result, every student that requested aid was offered it, and everyone that wanted to go was able to.
Previous choir tours during Howlett’s tenure have included Turkey, Germany, and Spain. Her goal is to do a trip of such magnitude at least once every four years, so that every choir student has a chance to go at least once in his or her time at Vassar. “As a choral conductor, I think about the music and the cultural things behind these trips,” says Howlett, “but these trips also make a huge difference in terms of friendships, and how the group relates to each other and takes care of each other over the years. Location is important. But the togetherness of the trip means the most to them, I think. They just like being together and singing together.”
In years when large-scale trips haven’t been a part of the equation, the choirs have stayed closer to home, with trips to Chicago and to Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC. No matter where a trip takes the choirs, “students love meeting the alums, and alums love meeting the students,” explains Howlett. In fact, she wasn’t back in her Poughkeepsie office on campus much more than a week when a handwritten note arrived expressing appreciation from an alum who had attended one of the London events.
Senior director of regional programs John Mihaly ’74, who was instrumental in planning the alumnae/i-focused events in London and Paris, couldn’t have been more proud of Vassar’s choirs. “They were great,” he says. “They were extraordinary representatives of Vassar College and also American college youth.”
Choir image © Vassar College / Hermine Cleret.