Reflections on St. James’s Choir Trip to Italy
June 23 – July 2, 2013
My experience in Italy was one that will be most memorable. I have been fortunate enough to travel extensively and see and experience some very wonderful things, but none more touching than my time in Italy. The most transcendent experience for me was singing at St. Peter’s Basilica. I remember how I felt when I first walked through the doors of the cathedral. It was absolutely breathtaking! Leading up to our participation in the mass, I had a chance to be still and internalize the experience as I prayed silently in the chapel before it was time to sing, which put me in a place of gratefulness and humility. I remember thinking just before preparing to sing the first note, “this is really happening…God, thank you!”…. It was truly an unforgettable experience!
Antonia FD Vassar
Before having my baby Casimir, the idea of taking a 5 month old on the choir trip to Italy seemed like a great idea. Even though my husband couldn’t go on this trip, I’d traveled all over the world by myself. Surely having a baby along would be perhaps not the most relaxing trip ever, but certainly manageable. By the time I realized how bad an idea this could be, it was too late to back out. It turns out that in worrying about traveling alone with my baby, there was one big thing I was forgetting — we were traveling with 70 choir aunts, uncles, grandmothers, and grandfathers. People helped out from very beginning of the trip (literally the very beginning — on the steps of St. James’s, a bunch of folks divvied up an extra pack of diapers that wouldn’t fit in my luggage) to the very end. Casimir’s choir family held him when he was happy, held him when he was fussy, held him when he was sleepy. They carried our luggage, kept track of my stuff so I could keep track of the baby, and kept track of the baby so I could keep track of my stuff. They pushed the stroller (and carried the stroller over all those bridges in Venice). They let Casimir drool on their shirts, gnaw on their hands, sit on their laps, and sleep in their arms. This generosity in helping with my baby extended beyond the choir. A small sampling of new friends who held Casmir so I could dash up to our hotel room/visit the restroom/juggle belongings: flight attendants, seatmates on the flight (they were probably even more relieved than I that he slept for most of the trip), the helpful front desk clerk in Venice, the hotel maid, our bus driver (Andrea made it his mission to take care of the stroller, the bus would barely have come to a stop before he had that stroller out and ready to go), Italian grandmothers in cafes, and waiters in restaurants.
We were surrounded by a loving community of friends both old and new who took care of us. So I guess I can’t really say that I traveled alone to Italy with my baby. I traveled to Italy with my baby and 70 members of our extended family.
The choir trip to Italy is almost too wonderful to describe but here it goes! For me, the experience will live in my memory and heart for the rest of my life. I have shared this amazing opportunity and tried to express the gratitude, deeper connection with the choir members, my faith and commitment to music to share God’s love for the world with others. Music is a universal language, no matter what nation or church or piazza. It was an honor and privilege to participate in this one-in-a-lifetime opportunity with these talented musicians. The memorable moments were seeing the tears of emotion from a woman at the inspiring ending of Hogan’s simple yet moving version of This Little Light of Mine (sung so perfectly by Antonia and Chris) in Chiesa Santa Maria dei Miracoli to the smiles of joy in the faces of the people during the Flash Mob at St. Mark’s Square. Stephen has so many new fans! There were many highlights in between…the unexpected performance of Sicut Cervus at Ravenna, the awe-inspiring mass at THE St. Paul’s Basilica. Amazing is an understatement. And how appropriate our first flash mobs were at St. Mark’s….Mark, you ARE a saint to have orchestrated this trip with all the special sites and thought you put into this trip. I know we all had a marvelous time and would sing for you and Virginia anywhere in the world! Hope this gets some of my experience across!
Commitment, perseverance, gratification – all words to describe an experience that is rarely afforded one in a lifetime. I had not participated in the previous choir trips abroad, because I knew I would be challenged. This trip was also one that I felt was too hard for me; after all, I don’t know Latin, nor do I sing 15th century, double-choir music. However, there was some arm-twisting by some folks who had gone on previous trips that made me think I could do this. After 5 months of twice-weekly practices and enduring special practice sessions (endured by both me and the people working with me!) and a total lack of confidence that I would ever learn these pieces, it began to come together. The focus changed from notes and rhythms, to refinement and voice quality, to memorization and singing with the head-voice, to excitement that I might add a good voice (allergies permitting) to beautiful pieces of music that would be sung in the venues that grace our eyes by their beauty. And the people – the relationships that were formed, both during the practices and then on the road, are lasting. Whether we were the paid singers, the committed volunteers, or the voices that for 30 years have signed up each fall and spring semester to join Mark’s Choir class at NVCC, we were the community of Christ on a mission to sing the best music in our very best way. No, we didn’t sing every song exactly right all the time, but the blended voices, working as a team, made it perfect. Commitment, perseverance, gratification. Thanks be to God.
The entire trip was spiritually and emotionally enlightening for me, but here are a few of my unexpected highlights. I look forward to hearing from other choir members about their God moments. My “Oh, now I understand” moment – Why are we stopping in Ravenna? What is of interest to see in Ravenna? I loved our visit to the Basilica di San Vitale, which was completed in the year 547 and had a stunning series of Byzantine mosaics depicting stories from the Bible. The sunlight reflected off of the glass and metallic mosaic tiles bounced and shimmered throughout the church, and I thought, was reflective of God’s holy presence. We proceeded on to the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, which had a mosaic inspired by Psalm 42, depicting deer yearning for water, and our eternal thirst and yearning for God. I saw tourists moved to tears when we gathered in a large circle in the church and sang Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus. At that moment, I had the certain knowing from God that I was exactly where I needed to be, and doing exactly what He wanted me to do. I don’t have that spiritual conviction as often as I would like, but then, it was undeniable. My “I can’t believe I’m here” moments – watching Casimir’s tiny little foot peeking out under his blanket & tapping rhythmically to a flashmob performance of Hogan’s I’m Gonna Sing ‘Til the Spirit Moves in my Heart in Florence; witnessing Italians vigorously and joyously celebrating lottery selections for Il Palio de Siena at the Piazza del Campo in Siena; my first steps into the Basilica di San Pietro and simply being present in the moment and knowing that we were only one of many throughout the past and future, to leave their vocal imprint; being directed (rather commandingly) in an unexpected choral “Alleluia” response by the director of music at St. Peter’s, listening to the church caretaker’s dog, barking (while sitting at the front of the church) during mass at Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Ricci in Florence; and, strolling with friends in the evening outside the Basilica di San Marco in Venice and watching the sunset. My “I am blessed to know these people” moments – choir members carrying my bags, choir robe, and music folder; waiting for me to reposition my knee immobilizer; giving me an arm or hand while walking; pushing me around in a wheelchair (allowing me to have an unobstructed ceiling view of the Sistine Chapel); hailing cabs for me; letting me prop my leg on their lap at dinner; walking with me at my pace all over Italy; and seeing happy, smiling, tearful faces in the audience (yours too!) after our performances.
On Tuesday night, we sang for the mass at St. Mark’s in Venice. Our last piece was Sicut Cervus –as the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after thee. Afterward, tears came to my eyes, almost sobbing, I felt close to God, relieved after months of working toward this moment. The next day we travelled by bus to Florence, stopping in Ravenna to tour the Basilica of San Vitale, a Byzantine church built in the 6th century. We did an impromptu performance of Sicut Cervus while circled under the church’s dome. Afterward, I noticed young woman sitting on one of the benches inside our circle, tears were streaming down her face.
The honor and privilege of walking behind the ropes towards the altar of St. Peter’s in order to sing mass as a choir was a holy experience for me. All time and space was distilled into those monumental moments as we approached the choir loft. I felt very much in the now and ever present in the present which of course is where the divine spirit resides within.
This was a “Trip of the Ages” for me….looking back over four marvelous choir trips and the people I have known through them was a real treat. I remember Dr. Trice coming along, and Nancy Phillips, who so graciously supported our future trips upon her death. I was reminded of all of our supporters at the choir fundraiser while I walked the stony paths of Italy to our concert venues, and their gifts made me so truly thankful. This was music…through the ages…from Palestrina and Monteverdi’s sheer genius all the way to our modern choir performing that music in sacred spaces…looking ahead to the future of St. James’s Church after our 100th year celebration…one realizes that music binds together generations of people in God’s love. Whether you compose the music, conduct it, sing it or listen to it…we are all touched by God’s music through the ages. This was reflected to me in the faces of the people we met and talking with them. Coming from all different faiths, we found a common bond through the music. So I was left with Blessed Assurance…that God is with us…that it will all continue into the future…just as that amazing architecture has throughout Italy…and the mosaics…and the paintings…and the yearning we Americans have to discover the past and be part of it. Meeting the choir from Santa Cruz, California that sang the day after we did in St. Peters was so much fun–sharing their excitement, discussing repertoire and travel…it is exhilarating…to know that praising God through music will live on…through the ages.
When the St. James’s choir returned from singing in France a few summers ago, I knew I wanted to go on the next trip. As Mark announced the Italy itinerary and musical repertoire, I had to search my soul before committing, because I wondered if I could devote the time required to learn the music. For this choir is not your average church choir; it’s comprised of professional singers, semi-pros and serious amateur voices. At the bottom of the choral hierarchy are folks like me: I can carry a tune and read music, but in Latin? Double choir? What if I try, will I embarrass myself or my fellow choristers? After months of rigorous practice, 60 singers and 20 companions departed June 23 for a singing tour of Venice, Florence and Rome. I have enjoyed reading others’ reflections of the trip. For me the highlights were singing breathtaking music in the special venues, and traveling with the finest of people. Mark’s combined selection of sacred works and spirituals made for an engaging experience for the listeners and a rewarding musical stretch for me. The combination gave us flexibility to sing in a variety of venues, including our flash mobs in St. Mark’s Square, the bridge behind the Miracole in Venice, in front of the Duomo in Florence, St. Peter’s Square and the Pantheon in Rome. The first time Mark said, “It’s time for a flash mob” we had our doubts (except Stephen and Chris), but the spectators rewarded us with applause and cheers, putting to rest the nagging question, “Can we really pull this off?” Recalling our singing in mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, it was quite a journey to get there. I don’t mean the trip or its rehearsals this year, but all the preparation and performances from previous trips: the St. James’s choral resume had paved the path to this opportunity. At last our moment had come, and we filed into the choir loft behind the organist. We exchanged looks with each other, acknowledging the gravitas of the situation. It was a surreal moment to cherish for a lifetime. The only other time I felt like that was waiting on my father’s arm to walk down the church aisle on my wedding day. The mass was conducted entirely in Italian and without a printed program, making it difficult for us to know what was to happen next. At one point near the end (according to the organist who interpreted for Mark), the priest thanked our choir and told us we had “shortened the distance between God and Man.” I couldn’t imagine higher praise. I pray that each of you has a similar opportunity in your life to spend it with people of substance, in a setting that enhances your appreciation of God’s earthly and divine creation. Many thanks to Mark for organizing this trip, selecting the awe-inspiring music, arranging our performance at St. Peter’s, enduring rehearsals that will not be recounted here, and having the patience of a saint to shepherd this awesome group through six performances in five cities of Italian wonder. Grazie!
I have been to Italy many times, beginning as a kid back in 1962. But, nothing compared with this experience! I will only reflect on a pinnacle experience: singing mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. Back in 1999 I spent 3 days at the Vatican and its Museums with a Vatican scholar. (The usual tourist “forced walk” displays less than one-half of 1 % of the Vatican’s holdings. ) The museum descends 6 floors below the public galleries. All that said, never – never – have I felt so overwhelmed by the power of the Church and Our Lord as I did when we sang mass. And, we sang at the highest of the 44 altars that are housed within St. Peter’s. I shall never forget this, ever. Those who made this trip are truly blessed. And, thank God for Mark and Virginia Whitmire and St. James’s Church who made this all possible.
My time in Italy was a very transformative experience! As a recent graduate, I am at a very interesting place in life in which I can explore many future possibilities. Joining the choir was my first attempt at trying something new. I made the decision to go on the Italy trip with no plans to sing with the choir, but once Mark requested that I join, I had a feeling that if I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to perform in these phenomenal spaces, I would truly regret that decision. In retrospect, I am thrilled that I took his suggestion, allowing me to embark upon this journey with the choir. I can hardly put into words what I feel when I think about this trip! So much of my spirit was fulfilled through this experience. Though I have had many performances as an instrumentalist, my spirit was fulfilled in a way that was unparalleled. For me, music is a way of life. It is a vehicle for healing, a universal form of communication, and the deepest type of self expression. Every time I play my violin, I am changed for the better and in Italy I was given the opportunity to perform without my violin, which was completely outside of my comfort zone. Instead of “singing” through an external instrument, I was using my very own God given instrument. That experience in itself was completely life changing. To be wholly responsible for the sound and color that you are producing heightens the experience, because you are able to take full ownership of the music you are making. For the first time, I felt like I had a direct connection to God. Aside from my musical experiences, I connected with so many wonderful people and am convinced that I acquired some life-long friends. I am not sure that it would be possible to go on a better trip: I was in a beautiful country, surrounded by great people making glorious music in some of the world’s most spiritual spaces. Many people are lucky to experience one of these things in a lifetime, let alone all of them in a short ten-day trip. To think that we were able to share our music thousands of miles away and successfully touched peoples’ hearts is so meaningful. I can’t think of a better way to start this next chapter of my life! I am so humbled by this experience, not only as a musician, but as a human being.
St. James’s Choir
Dr. Mark Whitmire, Director
Virginia Ewing Whitmire, Organist
Read about the trip in Richmond magazine
Soli Deo Gratias