In May, students in American University's Chamber Singers ensemble packed their bags and flew halfway across the world to travel across Czechia (also known as the Czech Republic), Slovakia, and Hungary. Through their travels, the ensemble became an attraction in and of itself—members performed in seven ticketed concerts in churches, concert halls, and historic buildings in different cities. “Each space had its own unique sound, so our group was able to style its artistry uniquely each night,” said Luke Stowell (CAS ‘24).
The AU Chamber Singers is a highly select choral ensemble currently numbering 29 members under the direction of music professor Daniel Abraham. In the years before the pandemic, the ensemble toured every two years to countries including Greece, Romania, Hungry, the Balkan region, Russia, Poland, Spain, and Portugal. Before Abraham joined the faculty in 1999, the ensemble toured extensively in South America and Mexico under the leadership of Professor Vito Mason, who directed the choral ensembles at AU for 25 years. This tour was the first since 2019, before the pandemic started. “All of our tours are designed with a cultural-diplomatic approach allowing students to be immersed into new cultures and to bring audiences abroad a broad cross-section of repertoire that centers less know choral works and a variety of American styles,” says Abraham. “Many of our tours have also included working with organizations abroad for the public good – whether regional orchestras, local choral ensemble, or civic groups.”
The students kept a busy schedule traveling and sightseeing during the day and performing most evenings. The group enjoyed a Danube river cruise, the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath in Budapest, and the Slovak National Soccer League Championships in Bratislava. Their itinerary included both large cities like Budapest, Bratislava, and Prague, as well as much smaller towns like Banská Štiavnica in Slovakia and Nymburk in Czechia. They also performed in several important festivals, including the Antonín Dvořák Festival in Příbram, Czechia honoring the famed nineteenth-century Czech composer. In addition to their regular program, they sang a lesser know set of Four Songs by Dvořák before the festival’s honored guest, the great grandson of the composer.
Taking the Stage
Each night’s program consisted of a variety of music, including songs that were both new and familiar to local audiences. In addition to the enduring “Ave Maria” by Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez and works by Dvořák, Abraham selected contemporary works and American traditional and folk music. “The repertoire, which often includes cutting-edge new American music, is selected to bring not only less familiar sounds to audiences abroad, but also to give the Chamber Singers new ways to think about and experience the music in spaces unlike those in which we regularly perform. The various space acoustics becomes a very important part of artistic exploration of every performance.”
This rare opportunity allowed the singers to perform inside exquisite, historic locations in front of international audiences. Students noted the cultural exchange facilitated by each performance. “We always had people coming up to us after our performances to share their thoughts and feelings about us and the music,” says Emily Brignand (SIS ‘24). For Stowell, “it was an unforgettable experience that I will carry with me for the rest of my career.”
During the carefully planned touring and performance schedule, there were moments of spontaneity. The singers engaged in an impromptu performance during a visit to a church in Kutna Hora in Czechia. “We did not have our scores, but since we knew the pieces so well at that point, we felt very comfortable performing from memory. I think that opportunity challenged us to go off-music in a productive way that made us realize how confident we were,” says Brignand.
Traveling and performing together strengthened friendships amongst the singers over the course of the 12-day trip. “Our group bonded in ways I never expected,” says Stowell. For graduated seniors, the trip was their last time performing with an AU ensemble, while other students will return to sing together once again this fall. For Abraham, “These tours are not only an important part of the important global reach of an AU education, but they are also a critical part of building important and lasting community. Students in the ensemble connect in such meaningful ways through this kind of intense music-making and this creates community that will stay part of all they do throughout their lifetime."
AU Chamber Singers Director Daniel Abraham with Petr Dvořák, great-grandson of the composer in Příbram, Czechia. Photo: Matthew Markey.