University Choir Hits All the Right Notes

Student musicians traveled to Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia on a mission of service and song.

University Singers
The choir, conducted by Gisele Becker, an adjunct music instructor, performed at the Church of St. Casimir, a historic 15th century cathedral in Vilnius, Lithuania.
June 22, 2015

By John DiConsiglio

A chorus of 26 George Washington University students added their voices to Baltic harmonies during a 10-day, four-city study abroad tour from the churches of Latvia to the castles of Lithuania to the villages and town squares of Estonia.

Organized every two years by the Department of Music, previous choirs have taken their talents to South Africa, Brazil, Croatia and Italy. They study international musical cultures, sing with local performers and express their thanks to the host countries with service projects, such as instructing school children and staging concerts at orphanages. This year’s trip took them to the Baltic states of northern Europe, which are renowned for their rich musical tradition.

“These are countries where music matters,” said Robert Baker, assistant professor of music and director of performance study within the Department of Music. “Our students will be better musicians thanks to this trip, and they also will be better citizens of the world.”

The tour is part of the Study Abroad Program, which supported a dozen student trips this summer, including an art therapy excursion to India and an interior architecture and design trek through Paris. With student input, Dr. Baker and Gisèle Becker, an adjunct music instructor and director of choral activities, chose the Baltics for its musical heritage as well as its exotic locale.

“We wanted to offer [students] a travel experience they may never have considered before,” Ms. Becker said.

Students rehearsed throughout the fall semester, spending as much as 10 hours a week crafting their repertoire of spirituals, standards and sing-alongs.

“We feel very strongly about bringing American music on international tours; that’s who we represent and that’s what audiences want to hear,” said Kevin Frey, B.A. ’15, a former president of University Singers. “We think of it as an exchange of international musical genres.”

With churches comprising three of four venues on the Baltic tour, the choir deemphasized its canon of Gershwin and Copeland tunes in favor of choral arrangements and American spirituals.

By the time the choir landed May 19 in Lithuania after a 13-hour flight, the jet-lagged singers had just hours to prepare for a concert at the Church of St. Casimir, a historic 15th-century cathedral in the capital of Vilnius. The students were less awed by the church’s gold-domed ceiling and 13 ornate baroque altars than by its remarkable acoustics. Singing to an audience of more than 100 fellow performers, students and local music lovers, their voices echoed for a full seven seconds after each note.

“It was beautiful,” said junior Jennifer Sherman, a political science major and soprano with University Singers. “We sounded crazy good.”

The choir held joint concerts with local singers and school choruses for two weeks. In Riga, Latvia, the students shared the stage with the Latvian Voices, a world famous female a cappella group. In Šiauliai, Lithuania, they visited the Hill of Crosses, a monument of 100,000 crosses memorializing deceased loved ones, including victims of Nazi and Soviet massacres. Sophomore Katie Costello, a GW Troubadour soprano, draped her late grandmother’s rosary around a cross.

“She always regretted never traveling the world,” she said. “It was a special moment for me.”

Outside of Tallinn, Estonia, the singers performed at an orphanage. They distributed clothing, toys and gifts and swapped their hymns for light-hearted pop tunes from the Jackson Five and Young the Giant. At first, Mr. Frey said, the audience of “doe-eyed” children seemed intimidated by the boisterous singers. “But we soon had them dancing and imitating boom box beats,” he said.

Throughout the trip, the choir endured the inevitable backstage dramas. Rising senior Ally Carter, a geography and international affairs major and GW Troubadour soprano, landed in Lithuania with laryngitis and lip-synced through her first performance. And a stomach bug struck a handful of students in the middle of an Estonian concert.

“We were dropping like flies,” Ms. Costello joked.

Forced to fill in for ailing soloists, Mr. Frey memorized song lyrics just moments before his cue—comforted by the likelihood that few audience members spoke English.

“When you are touring, you have to roll with the punches and perform by the seat of your pants,” he said. “It’s part of the fun—even though it’s slightly terrifying.”