The 64-member Hamilton College Choir with Professor of Music and Choir Director Rob Kolb are on a 10-day spring break tour of Italy. Choir member Katherine (Kate) Brouns ’17 has been reporting on the group’s travels. After performances in Rome, Florence and Ravenna, the final stop was Venice.
March 21 – 24
Perhaps anyone who has travelled to Venice will agree with me that Venice is Disneyworld, minus the rides. I might just be too hung up on the “It’s a Small World” ride since you sit in a boat, but still, I think the likeness stands. Venice feels like a toy city in many ways, like it must have been artificially crafted to be this adorable. But alas, apparently Venice just is that beautiful on its own.
Leaving cars behind, we arrived on the island (technically 117 islands) Tuesday evening. After having the night to ourselves to explore the “streets,” we all gathered Wednesday morning for a walking tour of the city. Venice has more shops than seems possible, given the constant question of how they managed to get all this stuff here via boat and shoulder-width alleyways. For instance, we passed a furniture store. How?! The tour led us past an abundance of bridges, tiny dogs, glass-blowing shops, and decorative mask stores; it was impossible to keep track of where we were going or where we were coming from, given the nature of Venice’s winding streets and canals. Each gelato shop was fleeting, because you knew there was no way you were finding that store again amidst the maze.
The tour concluded with a planned surprise for Rob and Lauralyn (Rob’s wife and also a member of Hamilton’s music faculty). Adelaide Fuller, a senior in the choir, coordinated a gift from all of us that would take Rob and Lauralyn on a private gondola ride through Venice, complete with snacks and a personal accordion player. After surprising them with the gondola, the choir sang our alma mater, “Carissima,” as the two sailed away. I think we might have enjoyed giving them their gift and singing our Hamilton anthem in the streets of Venice just as much as they enjoyed receiving it.
Our final concert in Italy took place Wednesday night in yet another incredible cathedral. With our biggest crowd yet (Venetians were apparently really drawn to our American choir??), this concert was the perfect conclusion to a moving, remarkable choir tour. Following the audience’s applause, Rob guided us to perform an encore of our final piece, “Deep River,” arranged by René Clausen.
Unfortunately, our Italian audience was probably quite alarmed to see so many members of the choir (particularly us poor seniors) crying by the end of the song, but I like to hope they found it endearing. As a four-year member of the choir myself, I couldn’t have asked for a more moving final concert abroad, nor in a more magical city than Disneyworld—I mean Venice.
With our singing completed and our voices absolutely fried (you better believe we’ll be out-for-the-count for the next week), we spent Thursday night at a farewell dinner. On a boat!! Goodness gracious. After watching the sun set on the top deck, we gathered for a delicious dinner and, of course, a toast to Rob. Despite our chants of “Speech! Speech! Speech!” Rob wouldn’t heed our requests. Rather, he had something else in mind.
To give some context, two years ago the choir performed a song by Eric Whitacre, a piece that now reigns as my favorite choral piece to have ever sung. The lyrics come from a poem by e.e. cummings, titled “i thank You God for most this amazing.” Before each performance of the song on our tour of the Southern U.S., Rob would recite the entire poem to the audience, a recurring event the choir always delighted in. So, instead of giving a speech at our dinner on Thursday, Rob succinctly and nostalgically summed it up one more time with the words of e.e. cummings.
To summarize: “i thank You God for most this amazing day … and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes … Now the ears of my ears awake and now the eyes of my eyes are opened.” Grazie, Italia.
March 19 – 21: Little Hats and Strangled Priests?!
Winding away from Florence and after making a brief stop in Bologna, the choir arrived on Sunday in the quaint, walkable city of Ravenna. First on the agenda was a Mass participation followed by a concert at a local church. This concert was different than most though; for the first time, we would be performing alongside a local Italian choir and group of musicians. And one of our songs was in Italian!
Our Italian piece, “Pater Noster” by Verdi, was one of our most challenging to perform, and we'd been having some difficulty with it during previous concerts. Now more than ever, it seemed it was finally time to prove ourselves! Thankfully (and luckily!), we rose to the challenge and delivered our best performance of the piece yet, leaving all of us grinning to ourselves after the song was completed.
We also had the opportunity to perform a joint song, “Ave Verum Corpus,” with the Italian chorus to conclude the concert, which was an incredibly unique experience. As we were directed by the Italian choir’s conductor, a wall of sound erupted from the front of the church as two full choirs and four musicians performed the same piece, coming together across differing backgrounds, languages, and ages.
Ravenna not only offered us this unique performance opportunity, but also offered us a free day full of gazing at some of the most beautiful, complex mosaics in the world. In particular, the Basilica of San Vitale (which we, needless to say, flash-mobbed) again left the choir with our jaws dropped.
As a brief aside, these flash-mobs have become commonplace to me, in a way. They’ve become a staple of each location we travel to. That, of course, is crazy that singing in ornate, awe-inspiring basilicas now appears so ordinary to me, but I guess Italy just does that to you with its abundance of beautiful cathedrals and its countless opportunities for impeccable acoustics.
Now back to mosaics—the San Vitale mosaics at first glance appear to be paintings, but a closer look reveals thousands and thousands of tiny squares. The mosaics include so many variations of colored tiles that their artists were even able to produce shading to make characters and objects appear more realistic. San Vitale was only one example of many, many impressive, detailed mosaics we encountered in Ravenna.
Along with some more why-am-I-still-breaking-my-bank shopping amidst the winding streets of Ravenna, Raffaella—our tour manager—encouraged us all to try two special types of Ravenna pasta: cappelletti and strozzapreti. Translated to English, these pastas mean respectively “little hats” and “strangled priest.” Sounds benign enough. The two pastas are named after their appearance. Cappelletti looks somewhat like wontons, folded over into the shape of bishop hats and commonly stuffed with cheese. Strozzapretti looks ... well ... like thick, twisted spaghetti. You can infer on your own how this could relate to strangulation. After consuming “strangled priest,” fawning over simply ridiculous mosaic artwork, and buying many unnecessary souvenirs, we were ready for the bus and boat ride to the final leg of our tour: Venezia.
March 17 – 19: These Feet Were Made for Walkin’
With less than 48 hours in Florence, we tried to maximize every spare moment in this compact beautiful city and—if I do say so myself—we succeeded. My pedometer from yesterday read over eight miles of walking, and I guarantee that I am no anomaly.
Upon arrival on Friday, we immediately set out on a three-hour walking tour of the city, which took us through winding alleys, past impossibly old towers, and by many a pigeon. Of course, like Rome, Florence likes never to let you get too comfortable with the sights and the architecture. Rounding a corner, we were confronted with the Cathedral di Santa Maria del Fiore, which is home to Florence’s Duomo, the largest dome in the world. Casual.
The basilica not only towers over the rectangular grey-scheme city blocks, but its exterior is covered with dazzling white and green marble. To make a weird analogy, compared to the other buildings, Il Duomo is a peacock amidst sparrows (no offense, sparrows). Now cue the choir stumbling around, flustered, trying to get their bearings before this behemoth of a church. Naturally, the next step was to flash-mob it! There’s no building too pretty nor too important to be flash-mobbed in our eyes.
Our walking tour was followed by a group dinner of pasta, fish, cake, bread and red and white wine. We took over more than half of a single restaurant, and made a bit of a mess. When the bread baskets arrived with olive oil and vinegar, there were no plates laid out on the table. Rather than ask for plates we decided to pour the oil and vinegar directly onto our slices of bread. It was a minor disaster. Need I say more?
Amazingly, despite our barbaric bread behavior, we were given a free day in Florence the following day; the unspoken challenge being, how do you optimize your limited time here? Apparently, the answer was: by walking, a lot. On Saturday, many of us ended up in the city’s open air market. Given that Florence is known for its leather products, vendor after vendor sold every item of leather you could imagine: belts, purses, wallets, journals, bookmarks, the list goes on.
Alongside these stalls were vendors selling stationary, jean jackets, jewelry, scarves, ties—it was overwhelming. These stalls surround a massive indoor food market. Along with the mouth-watering pasta and dried fruit sold here, we found some pig tongues, organs, and skinned rabbits for sale too. Gotta love it.
Other choir members trekked back to the cathedral and climbed to the top of Il Duomo for a breath-taking panoramic view of Florence. Others went museum-hopping—Tim, Tina and Kayla made it to eight different museums in 24 hours! Talk about maximizing your time here. One such museum was the Accademia Gallery, which houses Michelangelo’s marble masterpiece, David. The plaque beside the statue echoes the sentiment that once you see David, no other manmade sculpture is worth your time anymore. I went to the Accademia and forgot to see anything else, because I stood in front of David for at least 30 minutes. It is truly something else.
Our feet exhausted and our free day complete, we walked a mile (HA) to the concert venue. The acoustics were so intense that it was actually more difficult to sing than usual; the echoes came back around to taunt us after each phrase, sometimes conflicting with the next line we needed to sing. Thankfully, it wasn’t too much of a hindrance, and for the first time I’ve witnessed in my four years of choir, a man came up and asked for Rob’s autograph immediately following the concert. It was absolutely adorable. As we push on toward Ravenna today, we’re on the hunt for more autographs, more art (though likely not comparable to David), and a smidge less walking (who am I kidding?).
March 13 - 17: From Rome (N.Y.) to Rome (Italy)!
By some miraculous feat, Hamilton College shuttled approximately 70 20-somethings across the Atlantic Ocean on Monday … and we’re all here to tell the tale! Just this Saturday, we were performing our repertoire in a church in Rome, N.Y. But now, for the last four days, we’ve been embracing all that Rome, Italy, has to offer by singing in ornate basilicas, tripping (gracefully) on loose cobblestones, and gorging ourselves on gelato. (Sorry mom, but it’s college, so ice cream for breakfast is 100% allowed.)
Our first day in Rome was a shock to the system in the best possible way. Sleep-deprived after 24 hours of traveling, we arrived at 10 a.m. and were immediately whisked to the hotel. This sounded like a blessing, but sadly our time at the hotel did not involve the four-hour nap I dreamed of. Instead, we changed into our concert attire, as the first item on the itinerary was to perform in St. Peter’s Basilica. This is probably the sort of thing you should sleep for beforehand, but we pressed on nonetheless.
Simply put, St. Peter’s knocked me off my feet (almost literally, darn cobblestones). The architecture and artwork inside is awe-inspiring, to say the least. Upon entering the basilica, many members of the choir stumbled slowly forward, heads up and mouths ajar, taking in the impossibly high ceilings, the ornate sculptures, and the intricacy of detail on every surface. It is an unbelievable space, and it is mind-blowing to me that we were fortunate enough to be able to sing there. Singing in St. Peter’s was only a first glimpse at the astounding architecture and resounding acoustics we were to encounter throughout Rome.
For instance, on Thursday, we flash-mobbed the Pantheon. (Probably the only time I’ll ever be able to use that sentence in my lifetime.) Amidst throngs of visitors and tourists, we entered the dome and formed a tight-knit circle around our choir director, Rob Kolb.
Ironically, just as we prepared to sing, the security guard presiding over the Pantheon yelled, “SILENCE!” across the room. Singing would probably not be the proper response to that order, but no worries. We rushed over to the guard and got permission. With a tone from the pitch pipe and the signal from Rob, we began to sing one of our concert pieces, “O Nata Lux” by Morten Lauridsen.
The response from the crowd of tourists was amazing—iPhones and cameras raised up over our heads as people began videotaping the performance. Bystanders began flocking to form a ring around our group, quieting down to take a listen. One woman afterwards approached Rob to say that she’d put her family on speakerphone to hear our performance all the way in Miami, Florida. The moment was one I’ll likely never forget.
Our performance Thursday evening in the Chiesa Santa Maria Sopra Minerva was likewise well-received. Again singing in a jaw-dropping cathedral, when we would reach the end of each chord, the echo would seemingly reverberate into the silent room endlessly. At the end of the concert, we even received a standing ovation! Something important to note: this is Rob’s final year with the choir before retirement. He’s been leading the Hamilton College Choir and College Hill Singers and taking them on tours for more years than I can count. In my opinion—and in many others’ opinions—he deserves a standing ovation at every place we sing, so the audience’s response was well-received for a multitude of reasons.
Singing aside, choir tour means that you must become the ultimate tourist; it’s part of the name! So we’ve also been cruising around on guided tours of the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, the Vatican Museum, and the Sistine Chapel. Likewise, we’ve enjoyed an abundance of free time that is very unfamiliar to busy college students. As we push on to Florence on Friday, it’s hard to believe that there could still be more cathedrals, more gelato, and more homemade pasta to come. Thankfully, like the Grinch’s heart, our stomachs have grown three sizes this week, so we’ll be able to handle an abundance of pizza, wine, and bread going forward. Bring it on, Italy.