Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The Trip of a Lifetime

This is the article that I've been working on. Some quotes have been slightly altered for punctuation and clarification:

The Trip of a Lifetime

In May, the UAB Concert Choir brought international acclaim to Birmingham. On a campus better known for surgery rather than singing, 36 talented student musicians worked together to bring home two prominent awards from the Florilege Vocal de Tours, one of the world’s most prestigious competitions for choirs: the top award in the mixed choir category and the Prix du Ministère de la Culture, an award for best interpretation of a French choral work. On a trip that featured performances in the historic Cathedral of Notre Dame and the more modern Chapelle Sainte Rita, the UAB Concert Choir brought honor to the city of Birmingham and the state of Alabama.

The choir is directed by Philip Copeland, assistant professor and Director of Choral Activities at UAB. Of the 36 students who traveled to Europe, 18 were music majors and 15 were in their first year of choir. This was Dr. Copeland’s second trip to the festival, held each year in Tours, France. His first trip came in 1988 as a singer under the direction of Jerry Jordan and the University of Mississippi Concert Singers. “I have never forgotten the profound thrill of singing on the Tours stage in a choral competition; it was an experience that I wanted to give my students at UAB.”

Two other music faculty members accompanied the choir on the trip: John Ray, assistant professor of voice and Director of UAB Opera and Dale Reynolds, instructor and accompanist. Dr. Ray noted that

“from the moment we boarded the bus in Birmingham, our Concert Choir represented UAB with a musical professionalism beyond their years. Each note sparkled, each word revealed depth of understanding, and each individual voice united in magnificent harmony. Our students took their singing seriously, and lifted listeners to ethereal planes.”

Choir competitions are rare in the United States but quite common in Europe. The Florilege Vocal de Tours is in its 35th year of existence and is held every year in the city of Tours, France. Eighteen choirs from twelve nations participated in this year’s competition. The UAB Concert Choir was one of two university choirs from the United States invited to compete; five university choirs from the U.S. applied. Performance standards for the Tours competition are quite demanding: participating choirs are required to compete in two categories and must be prepared to sing as many as fourteen different selections. Part of the repertoire must be chosen from specified time periods of history.

Fourteen musical works, with all but one unaccompanied, takes an enormous amount of preparation and dedication. UAB Concert Choir members devote six hours of rehearsal each week to be a part of the ensemble on top of all their other schoolwork. “The music we sing is quite advanced in difficulty,” said Copeland, “It has to be when you are in competition with other great choirs of the world.”

Being selected to compete in the Tours event is an honor in itself. Choirs entering the competition submit listings of their achievements along with recordings, upon which organizers base their selections. Each invited choir receives free lodging and meals during the entire competition. “When the festival pays all meals and lodging for over 1000 singers for three days, you know they’re looking for some top performers,” Copeland says.

The competition’s generosity deferred a small portion of the trip cost and the students paid the rest. “It was difficult for most of our students to come up with the funds required for overseas travel,” Copeland said, “I think they will all agree that it was worth every penny.”

The choir and director felt they delivered their best performance on the evening of the first day. Delia Charest, a graduating senior at UAB, called the first evening’s performance the “concert of her life.”

“It was the best we had ever sung; we held the audience in complete awe and want for more—we could hear the audience breathe a sigh when our softest song was over. The uproar after we finished the spiritual was just amazing,” she said. “I’ll never forget what happened afterwards: people who could not speak any English came up to tell us how much we moved them. One precious little French man told us that the spirit was with us . . . all around us.”

Dr. Copeland recalls the same evening:

“Competition really heightens the natural joy of performing; it brings a new edge to the art. The choir experienced performances and audiences like they had never seen before. In the Saturday night performance, I could actually hear the audience holding their breath as we sang the most intimate moments of the work. As a conductor, I've been taught to stretch the audience and their emotions to the breaking point . . . . and I tried to do just that. There wasn't a sound in the entire auditorium as the sopranos held their note perfectly until the choir (finally) entered beautifully on the last cadence. It was a moment that I will never forget. And then—the spiritual. The audience went crazy following our performance of I Thank You Jesus—it was thunderous. Afterwards, the students were ecstatic about their singing and many wept as they hugged one another. It was very, very special.”

The choir competed in two categories and made it to the finals in both. “It’s clear from the judging sheets and comments that we were in a position to win the entire competition,” said Copeland. He continued, “I couldn’t be prouder of our students and I’m glad to have won this recognition for UAB.”

Many of the UAB students were surprised at how well they were received in Europe. Tara Howard described it this way:

“The people in France may not know how to smile while passing on the streets, but they sure know how to make great musicians feel appreciated. With their "chant- like" clapping, stomping, and screaming when you finish singing the best you have ever sung in your life, you can't help but feel completely satisfied and overwhelmed by the power of music as a universal language. I'll never forget the way it felt to perform at Notre Dame Cathedral, Saint Rita's Church and at the competition in Tours.”

One of the highlights of the trip was the opportunity to perform in the historic Cathedral of Notre Dame. To be considered for a performance, choirs must submit recordings and planned concert repertoire. “The performance in Notre Dame was very meaningful for our students,” said Dr. Copeland, “I was thoroughly impressed with their depth of understanding and spirituality regarding the concert.”

Performing in Notre Dame made a distinct impression on Erin Pair. She remembers that “her breath was taken away because of the vastness of the cathedral and the knowledge that millions of prayers are still lingering from all the people who were there before --- it was the most amazing feeling in the world.”

Charles Henry had a similar experience:

“It was difficult to fathom the beauty and majesty of Notre Dame. As we sang from the sanctuary steps, I kept thinking that we were singing the same language and scripture that had been echoed throughout those halls for centuries before us.”

Katie Movelle calls singing in Notre Dame the “singularly most incredible moment of my life.”

“The stained glass and stone angels behind Dr. Copeland’s head as we performed made God’s presence so much more real. When I returned to Notre Dame later in the week, I realized how privileged we were to have seen the back rooms and basements of the ancient cathedral.”

The concert following the Notre Dame experience was also noteworthy, but for a different reason. This concert, in the modern Chapelle Sainte Rita, was attended by about 250 music loving members of the community. The choir was well pleased with their performance and impressed with the spirit of the people who attended the concert.

Jonathan Hood, pre-nursing major, described the concert as “one of those experiences that will stick with me forever.“

“Our songs truly touched the people of this tiny French church. As we sang, it was apparent that God was working in that place. People were coming in off the streets in the middle of the concert. My entire trip was completely amazing but something happened in that church that I will never forget and I am truly thankful for the experience.”

It was what happened at the end of the concert, however, that everyone remembers. Holly Sawardecker relates the experience:

“At the end of the concert, the choir left the auditorium and headed downstairs into the holding area where we began congratulating each other on our performance. The girls took off their shoes and the guys removed their jackets. About 3 or 4 minutes had passed since our last note. Suddenly, Ms. Reynolds came in yelling “Get back out there NOW! They’re still clapping!”

“We couldn’t believe it. As we took the stage again, many of us looked out into the crowd. All eyes were on us and the clapping had become chanting. We were adored by complete strangers. They could see our surprise and smiled broadly as if to say ‘No, really, we want to hear more.’ Never before had we been received so enthusiastically!”

“Hurriedly, we got to the stage . . . those that were completely dressed took the stage first and the rest followed. It was an amazing experience.”

David Berg, freshman music major from Birmingham, called the adrenaline rush from the sustained applause “amazing.” Dr. Copeland had heard that people were clapping but dismissed it at first. “We didn’t have any more music to sing—we had sung all of the repertoire we had planned for the competition,” he said. “One of the students told me that they were still clapping but I thought they were just being polite. It was not until Ms. Reynolds came flying down the stairs a few minutes later that I realized that the audience was not going to leave unless we gave them an encore.”

The trip to France was not all about singing; it was also about experiencing another country’s unique culture and language. Students had an opportunity to tour all of the major museums and historic sights available to them.

Katie Movelle found that her French language skills sometimes failed her:

“Traipsing around Paris armed only with four semesters of French leaves room for unforeseen adventure. My favorite dining event was on the way to Sacre Couer. We stopped in LeBazaar CafĂ© and had the most convoluted conversation while trying to order two pizzas from a man who only spoke French and Spanish. Luckily, we were all patient and good-humored!”

Charles Henry identified with some famous visitors to Paris:

“I love a quote I found from Ernest Hemingway, ‘If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go the rest of your life, it stays with you...For Paris is a moveable feast.’

“And what a feast it was. The sights, sounds, smells and the ambience of being in a different world was electric. I can remember every second of every day as if I am still there. I may have left Paris, but I don't believe Paris will ever leave me. This was one of those life experiences that make you who you are, and I can't express enough gratitude to Dr. Copeland for making it happen.”

Any trip overseas is likely to change a person’s perception of the world, and this one certainly did for UAB students and faculty. However, this trip also succeeded in adding to the growing reputation of a music program making its mark on the international stage. “I’ve been astounded at the number of invitations from other international festivals and competitions since our participation in Tours. We certainly made an impression,” said Dr. Copeland.

Rebekah Smith summed up the trip this way:

“The best thing about the trip for me was being able to experience a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with a group of people who share a passion for choral music. We came together to represent UAB and America on the world stage and had a great time doing it.”


Clayton said...

Great article!

Philip L. Copeland said...

Clay, there is no way you read that article that fast. I just posted it and was trying to read it again myself!

Clayton said...

LOL! I read about half of it! The first half was great so I assumed the second half would be the same. I have just read the whole thing anyway.

Philip L. Copeland said...

B U S T E D.

Clayton said...

Hey. Just trying to give you some comments to make you feel like someone actually reads this... HA!

Clayton said...

actually, this blog gets like a hundred hits a day, mine only gets about 20.


Sarah LH said...

2 things: the attribution of the very first quote is unclear- sounds like dr. jordan could have said it.


"UAB Concert Choir members devote six [grueling] hours of rehearsal each week..."
other than those, it's fantastic!! which publication is this for?

scivley said...

That's great!! Makes me want to go back and do it all again :)

delia said...

great article...it makes me miss everyonw

Tara said...

Awwww... that article brings back such great memories!!! GREAT PENMANSHIP, Dr. Copeland!!!