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JU Touring Choir delights crowds in Paris, Chartres, Nantes

Jacksonville University’s Touring Choir members made new fans and a lifetime of memories during a France excursion that included performances by the choir at three magnificent Catholic cathedrals, along with some of the world’s finest sightseeing.

The May 6-13 trip – JU’s first international choir tour in more than 20 years — kicked off with three days in Paris, where the 24 students sang at the L’église Sainte-Marie-Madeleine. The group ventured next to Chartres, where it performed at the Notre-Dame de Chartres, and then spent three days in Nantes, where it performed at a Sunday-morning Mass at Basilique Saint-Nicolas. A bon voyage concert was performed at All Saints Episcopal Church in Jacksonville on May 2.

Sightseeing included stops in Paris at the Eiffel Tower, the Notre Dame Cathedral, The Louvre, and the Musee d’Orsay. The group also visited Versailles, the castle at Château d’Azay-le-Rideau and the fortress Château d’Angers.

The choir’s performances featured a set of classical sacred church songs in Latin, folk songs from around the world, and an eclectic selection of American music — the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” African-American spirituals and a Southern hymn. The students were accompanied by Music Prof. Tim Snyder, who arranged the trip; and voice Prof. Kimberly Beasley, who prepared the song set for the tour and performed as featured artist in solo work in some of the choral numbers.

About 400 to 500 attendees were at each concert, including this one at L’église Sainte-Marie-Madeleine preserved on YouTube:

“I’ve found that audiences in Europe most enjoy hearing American choirs sing American music, and this tour was no exception …” said Snyder. “The choral program was sung entirely unaccompanied, making the concerts easy to adjust for the spaces in which we were singing and avoiding the need of a piano, which are rare in churches over there, or organ, common in churches, but logistically difficult to work out given the short amount of time we had to rehearse in France.”

Senior music performance major Brittany Nickell, who will begin a master’s program this fall at New York City’s Manhattan School of Music, said that it was particularly meaningful for her to sing to large, enthusiastic audiences as part of a group of students with varied backgrounds and aspirations.

“As a college student in general, an opportunity to go abroad is an amazing opportunity that I wish was assessable to more people. As a music student however, I don’t think there is anything that could prepare you more for the cultural world of music than traveling overseas … As singers we sing because we want to, but singing for others? That just brings a whole other level of appreciation and dedication to us as young artists. To say that we have sung at the church where Gabriel Faure wrote his requiem, where he was the organ master. There are no words …

“It is one thing to read books and see scans of original works of art, but to be literally a foot away from a Van Gogh? There is no other equivalent. From the Louvre, d’Orsay, Versailles, to the Eiffel Tower, there is nothing that can prepare you for being there in person. It sounds cliché, but I won’t ever forget the Eiffel Tower at night, lit up like a beacon of light representing the majesty of Paris. And don’t even get me started on the twinkling lights. It’s something you have to see, to believe.”

Music and architecture aside, Nickell said the trip was exceptional in other ways.

“Some of the best parts of the trip, to me were our nights, which consisted of our free time. I don’t think there is any better way to really get to know Paris than by leaving the tour maps at the hotel and just walking. It is a beautiful city filled with opportunities,” she said. “Some of my greatest memories are the starry nights out at a cafe or bar with my friends and watching the culture live and in person. “

Planning for the international tour began in fall 2011; Snyder said France was selected primarily because of Jacksonville’s sister-city relationship with Nantes. The students raised funds to pay their costs for the tour.

“We made connections with other artists in Nantes, some of whom had visited Jacksonville — connections that we hope to build on as we move into the future,” he said.

Snyder, who also teaches music history, said a tour highlight for him was performing at Mass at St. Nicholas Basilica in Nantes.

“To sing our church music in the acoustic space for which it was composed and in the context of a liturgy was an incredible experience, and provided our students with the historical and social context for our music,” he said.

Beasley said she hopes that JU will arrange an international choral tour every two or three years.

“The experiences our students had in France will last them a lifetime and are impossible to recreate inside the classroom or rehearsal …” she said. “The way you use your voice in those cathedrals is special and unique, and they bring the music to life like no other spaces can.  It is also so special to be with the students and take part in their seeing things with you for the first time … There is nothing else that come close to travel and actually going to the places we talk about in our studies.”

Here’s a photo gallery from the tour: