USD's Choral Scholars, German Choir Make Beautiful Music, Memories

USD's Choral Scholars, German Choir Make Beautiful Music, Memories

Life experiences help everyone grow. When one’s experience involves travel, there seems to be no end to the kind of impact it can have on them, or in this case, an entire group of people.

"I think travel just changes people," Emilie Amrein, DMA, said. "Travel allows us to perceive the world differently and ourselves in it differently."

Earlier this month, Amrein, director and conductor of the University of San Diego's Choral Scholars, took her students on an educational and cultural immersion trip to Belgium and Germany over spring break. It was, in many ways, a business trip. The Choral Scholars performed twice in Belgium on their own and then had a concert alongside a German university's choir, the Kammerchor der Universitat zu Koln, led by its conductor, Michael Ostrzyga.

A Cross-Cultural Exchange

While that experience alone was meaningful and memorable, the bond between USD's students and the university choir singers from Germany, grew even more because the latter, a week later, did a nine-day California trip of its own that started with four days in San Diego and two concerts with the Choral Scholars, including a March 20 performance in USD's Founders Chapel. 

"This is very special for me and for all of us because there's so much joy in meeting all of these people who are from here," Ostrzyga said after the concert at Founders Chapel. "Performing music is always very emotional, but this was a chance to bring my family to be together with another family. Bringing the choirs together made it so special. It really means a lot to me."

The feeling was mutual for the Choral Scholars and Amrein. Performing the same material five times in the span of a few weeks was a new experience. Throw in the travel, performing in Belgium cathedrals (St. Salvador's in Bruges and St. Bavo's in Ghent), and a performance in Germany with limited in-person rehearsal time made what could have been a major challenge quite memorable.

"To perform the same collection of music pieces five times was different for us, but an unexpected thing for the student was the layers of meaning that were sprinkled on top of these pieces. Some of the songs, like 'Angel Band' and 'Unclouded Day' carried a different context and makes the pieces really rich."

Experiences breed respect and appreciation for each other's singing talents, as well as exposure to a new culture. Amrein said one measure of the success of this exchange came from an observation made by a Choral Scholar performer, Mark Sasaki: "It's great to know I have friends now I can visit whenever I'm in Germany." 

A Musical Experience at the Border 

Speaking of friendships, another aspect of the Germans’ trip was a chance for USD's contingent to host their guests in a community-based activity tied to immigration. Arranged by USD's Mulvaney Center for Community Awareness and Social Action, Border Angels, an organization led by USD alumnus Enrique Morones. On March 18, the choir groups visited Friendship Park, located near the U.S.-Mexico border and a physical fence that separates these countries.

Then something beautiful happened that won't likely be forgotten by anyone who was present. The singers performed "Unclouded Day,” toward the border fence.

The visible, physical fence between the two countries separates families, but people still flock to the area to speak to and visually spend time with loved ones. Amrein and Ostrzyga, despite initial reservations by some, assembled their singers together and performed a song the choirs have done throughout the last few weeks.

"We prefaced it by saying that when we sing, we announce our existence, announce our presence, as Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of the women's singing group, Sweet Honey in the Rock, would say," Amrein said. "This was our way of announcing our existence to the world. We were there seeing and observing. While it was hard to see through the fence, the music allowed us to go through it and be present on both sides."

Equally moving was an impromptu response. Amrein said a group of mariachi musicians on the Mexico side gathered their instruments and played to the delight of their friends on the U.S. side of the fence.

"We were deeply touched when we sang at the border fence and moved by what the musicians did for us on the other side," Ostrzyga recalled. "It was an informative visit for us all. Germans didn't know that there's already kind of a strong wall here. We followed the recent events in the U.S. and the election of Donald Trump and his threat to build a wall. Seeing the fence there, we all felt that there is already a wall."

Any barriers following that experience were erased by the USD and German students collaborating on their music. Concerts were played at San Dieguito United Methodist Church in Encinitas March 19 and Founders Chapel the next night. Selections by Brahms, Bach, Barber, Reger and Kirchner filled these spaces. A mix of German and American songs provided a mutually beneficial outcome.

"It was a very emotional thing, especially the last three songs," said Haley Pugh, a USD Choral Scholar student regarding ‘Angel Band,’ ‘Unclouded Day’ and ‘Hallelujah,’ which finished the collaborative performance at Founders Chapel. "I really heard the emotion in them and I loved getting to sing them here in our home for everyone."

The experience was music to everyone’s ears, minds and spirit. 

— Ryan T. Blystone

The Choral Scholars will perform as part of the USD Music Department's annual Angelus Sacred Early Music Series. The series, which runs April 1 and 2, has the Choral Scholars and guests-in-residence performing Giacomo Carissimi’s tragic oratorio Jephte under the direction of Emilie Amrein, DMA, on April 2. Additional works include Giovanni Battista Martini’s “Domine, ad adjuvandum me festina,” and Claudio Monteverdi's "Beatus vir." Tickets for the April 2 show, which can be purchased in advance online or with cash or check only at the door, are $10 for general admission, $8 for seniors, faculty, staff and alumni, and $5 for students with ID card.

Members of USD's Choral Scholars and Kammerchor der Universitat zu Koln collaborate on a song during a March 20 performance in USD's Founders Chapel.Members of USD's Choral Scholars and Kammerchor der Universitat zu Koln collaborate on a song during a March 20 performance in USD's Founders Chapel.

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