Monday, January 17, 2011

Tour: Pronounced with Two Syllables

For the past ten days, I’ve been touring around the “Deep South” with my concert choir, the University Singers. We bussed from city to city, singing for our supper at churches and high schools and staying with generous locals who had spare beds. This is the second tour I’ve been on with the U-Singers, and despite the fact that I probably should have been working on my dissertation during this time, I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to sing instead.

And more than just sing, too. We visited eight cities, several of which I’d never seen before: Lynchburg, VA; Charlotte, NC; Abingdon, VA; Memphis; New Orleans; Birmingham; Atlanta; and Christiansburg, VA. Not that we got to do much sightseeing except for in New Orleans, but still, we always met a few locals, so I think it counts. I won’t give a day-to-day rundown of our adventures, because let’s face it: most of the time was spent either on the bus or eating (sometimes both at once), and no one who’s not in the group would care to know which nights we went flat and which nights we made all our entrances on time. But a few interesting notes never go awry, do they?

First, just a note that all of these pictures, except the first one (which was taken in Abingdon) are from New Orleans. More on that later. Now, to business. To begin, “tour” is properly pronounced with two syllables, rhyming with “sewer.” I don’t care what the dictionary says, it sounds silly when pronounced like the past tense of “tear.” This was a heated debate amongst the singers both before and during the tour. But I’m right, so that’s that.

Next, I have decided that barbeque is the southern answer to lasagna. When we went on tour two years ago to the Midwest (which, in our math, incorporated both Rochester and Buffalo), the churches where we sang gave us lasagna for dinner practically every night. It’s a classic tour staple—because, really, what better way to feed seventy-some-odd people at one go? But in the South, it’s barbeque. We had pulled pork or barbeque chicken no less than four times in eight cities, and not a mention of lasagna even once. Last tour I pitied the lactose-intolerant; this tour I pitied the vegetarians and the folks who keep kosher.

On another food-related note, it will be a VERY long time before I feel the need to eat (or even smell) fried chicken again. Usually when we stopped for lunch on the road we could find some place with a Subway at least, but there was one day in which every blessed option was fried chicken: Chick Fil-A, Popeye’s, KFC, Raising Cain. The bus smelled like a deep-fryer the rest of the day.

I also have to point out the irony that confronted us on our trip: we thought we were making a wise decision to tour the South during this nasty, cold month, considering we were wandering around in Chicago this time two years ago. But no! We were hit with snow in Abingdon, Charlotte, and Memphis (small audience that day—most people stayed in during the blizzard that was falling as we sang). It was frigid in New Orleans on our free day, and Atlanta was so buried under three inches of solid ice that all our venues (and almost all our home-stay hosts) cancelled on us. In fact, instead of being a two-day stay in which we were to sing a concert the first night and do a choral workshop at a school the next day, our Atlanta sojourn turned into four hours killing time at an OUTDOOR shopping mall, a night in a hotel, an impromptu concert at a retirement community, and then a 10-hour drive back to Charlottesville. (We stayed overnight here, then drove back to Christiansburg for our last concert the next evening.) However, that impromptu concert was actually a really lovely experience, with a large and appreciative audience and time afterward to talk with them and enjoy some very positive feedback. So, as our director said, we made some lemonade out of the weather lemon. (That’s pretty much a direct quote.)

The most amusing concert we had, at least in my opinion, was in Abingdon, where I lost my shoe coming onto the risers and had to stand half barefoot, trying not to crack up and watching everybody else stare at my orphaned shoe as they filed on, until someone had the opportunity to grab it and return it to me. At that same concert, the dimmer lights were making a constant, very loud hum. It was somewhere in between a B and a B flat, and it threw us off entirely, since several of our songs start on a B. However, our director made some lemonade there too, and since the program is mostly a cappella, he simply had us take our pitch from the lights instead of his pitch pipe! Singers out there will find this amusing; I may not have explained it well enough to make non-singers appreciate how bizarre a solution it was.

I can’t pick the best or the most moving concert, because several moments stand out in my memory from various nights throughout the trip. People would mouth the words or even stand up in their seats when we sang “Loch Lomond.” One man told somebody in the choir that our Szymko piece made him cry, and he hadn’t cried in six years. That means something. We also sang Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria” (choral people tend to know this piece, but there’s a version on youtube if you don’t), and almost every night it moved somebody to tears—usually someone in the audience but more often than not someone in the choir as well. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces I’ve ever had the privilege to perform. But it’s never all serious; I can’t tell you how many times people told us how very much they liked “the Bieber piece.” Oh, Justin, you should aim so high.

Now, as promised, I'll wrap up by saying something about our free day in New Orleans. Every U-Singers tour has a free day; last time we explored Chicago in the snow, and this time we explored the Big Easy in barely-above-freezing temperatures, which the locals pretty much considered the end of the world. My tour buddy and I (yes, my tour buddy. Don’t you keep a tour buddy on hand?) walked around the French Quarter, had beignets and café au lait at the Café du Monde (oh, my goodness, the sheer amount of powdered sugar!), then took a walking tour of the beautiful Garden District (I’ve never seen so many famous people’s houses). Later, we braved a walk down Bourbon Street (wouldn’t want to be there on a weekend), and took in some genuine New Orleans jazz at Preservation Hall (the atmosphere was like an old speak-easy—shabby but somehow just right for that sort of music). But actually, my favorite part was the hour we spent with an old Cajun man who ran a mask shop in the French Quarter. He found out my tour buddy and I weren’t locals and was very happy to share with us his rather impressive knowledge about the history and culture of New Orleans. He even pulled up his family pictures from Mardi Gras and showed us the enclosed courtyard behind his store where a well-known local artist used to stage photo shoots. As we headed out of his shop, he left us with his one Cajun phrase: “Laissez les bons temps rouler”—let the good times roll. One of the best parts of tour is getting to meet locals who love their city and are eager to talk about it, and since we didn’t have home-stays in New Orleans, this lovely old man was a terrific answer to our wish to see the non-tourist side of the Big Easy.

So in the end, dissertation, schmissertation. How often does a trip to New Orleans go (literally) for a song?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Holidays--Oh how swiftly they fly!

Even as I kid, I always thought that there was something one-sided about the way holidays worked: for weeks and even months you build up to and anticipate the Big Day (in my family, Christmas, though for some people it’s birthdays or another celebration), then in a mere 24 hours, it comes and goes and suddenly you’re left with a lot of empty boxes and torn wrapping paper. Well, in our case, wrapping paper with the tape neatly sliced open, but still.

The whole build-up followed by an almost instantaneous tearing down of decorations and return to non-seasonal radio selections is really a modern thing. The Christmas season, liturgically and according to the celebrations throughout most of history, BEGINS on the 25th and doesn’t end until the Feast of the Epiphany a week and a half later. (How many people these days know that the twelve days of Christmas START on the 25th and go through the 5th of January?)

My family is chock full of holiday traditions, most of which take place before Christmas, and most of which involve chocolate. Starting as soon as my sister and I get home (and we’ve been fortunate enough so far always to have lengthy Christmas vacations), we start baking Christmas goodies. Then we watch all our favorite Christmas movies whilst eating those goodies. (Our viewing list includes the mandatory Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life, if we can convince my sister to sit through it, but it also includes some movies others might not even consider particularly Christmassy—like both installments of Home Alone—and some movies that most of the world has forgotten—like the Muppet’s Christmas Toy and the 1987 Muppet Family Christmas. Our favorite, however, is the Muppet Christmas Carol. We like Muppets. A lot.)

We decorate our tree with every single ornament we own, which results in each branch having two or more ornaments hanging on it, and my sister always puts the first gifts under the tree. Then my cat licks all the ribbons. We go to the Vigil Mass on Christmas Eve and then drive around the local neighborhoods looking at the Christmas lights. (When we were younger, we would literally say, “Ooh, aah” when we saw a good house, but we’ll still break out the phrase even now for an especially impressive display.)

On Christmas morning we open presents, and it usually takes half the day because my sister and I insist on unwrapping neatly so the paper can be reused—and we also usually get distracted by eating more Christmas goodies; it’s the only day out of the year when we eat chocolate before noon.

Every family has its own traditions, some probably much more exciting than ours, but this year we added something new: we read Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol aloud to each other as we baked our Christmas treats (often interrupting the reading to interject quotations and musical numbers from the Muppet version), and when we finished that, we read Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. If you don’t feel Christmassy after those two books, I don’t know what can be done for you!

And we bookended our Christmas celebrations with birthdays. My sister’s birthday is just before Christmas and mine is just after, but since neither of us is ever home for the actual day anymore we’ve taken to celebrating a little late and a little early, respectively. So the first and last vacation goodies that we baked were birthday cakes! We used those tasty store-bought sugar letters to spell out an appropriate message on my sister’s, but when we got to mine we discovered we didn’t have a particularly good selection of letters leftover. So my sister, creative thing that she is, played Scrabble on my birthday cake. I was favorably impressed with the result and thought it was worthy of sharing.

So I guess in the end we actually drew out our holiday celebration much longer than most people do, since we were still celebrating until the 3rd of January! Perhaps that can become part of our family tradition starting next year: Christmas for as long as possible. Maybe we’ll even manage to make it to the Feast of the Epiphany and revive the celebration of the Twelfth Night. After all, Christmas Day isn’t the END of something—it’s the beginning of everything!