There are a lot of ways to measure the success of a youth choir's international tour:
- Did all the choristers make it back?
- Were they largely intact?
- Did all the chaperones survive?
- Are there any outstanding warrants we need to be aware of?
- Did anyone get any new tattoos this time?
- Is everyone still talking to one another?
- How did they do in competition?
When we met Fenya at the airport last Wednesday, we expected some tears and red eyes from her and the other members of the Cantilon Chamber Choir, but we didn't realize that almost everyone on tour had gotten sick with a cold or similar illness at one point. Fenya herself was suffering from a nasty sinus cold that 4 days later is only now beginning to slacken its grip. Other singers suffered various afflictions ranging from 'tour tummy' to at least one case of conjunctivitis, but nothing so serious it couldn't be dealt with by the nurse and pharmacist among the chaperones,
Despite the number of historic learning opportunities and chances to perform in amazing venues, the tour was largely focused on the contest at the end: The Bela Bartok International Choir Competition in Debrecen, Hungary. Over a dozen highly talented young choirs from all over the world went head to head with their best material, hoping to impress the judges with their tone, inflection and mastery of choral music from a variety of cultures and periods.
Reading the tour blog entries posted by the choir director and her tour director husband, I knew the competition would be impressive, but I had no idea just how much:
Two of the choirs in our class are from Hungarian music schools. These are specialized schools whose students are generally selected as young as 5 or 6 for exceptional musical ability. They are taught one or two instruments, they sing every day, they are instructed in music theory and history and ear training with a curriculum unlike anything North America knows. And our little group of amazing young singers went toe-to-toe with them. I feel so very proud of each and every one of them! - Heather Johnson, Cantilon's Artistic Director
But it was good to see that our young people could keep their spirits up under trying conditions and hold their own against such august contenders:
Now please allow me a to sidetrack a little here. Something that perhaps not many of you know about me is that it takes a lot to impress me. And I mean a lot. Part of this is simply in my nature, and I attribute some of this to growing up in a perfectly normal family, complete with playing sports, tons of activities and traveling (hence my fondness of adventure). And both my parents just happen to be blind. But most everything in my life is perfectly normal otherwise, but I have to admit, my parents have set a VERY high bar for feats that I find impressive. The way these choristers behave on tour, some tired more than they have ever experienced, or arriving at an almost empty venue and STILL putting on their "game faces" and performing admirably, impresses me. You have heard it before from Heather I’m sure, but this is one remarkable group of teens and young adults. From the way they behave, to their interactions and care for one another is, simply put, impressive. I’ve mentioned a few times to Heather that her choristers are not typical teens, but rather great human beings (I can say this as I have taught and interacted with my fair share of young adults in various settings). - Steven Turgeon, Tour Director (and Heather's husband)
In the end, though, there can only be one winner, and this was not Cantilon's year; despite their illnesses (one lad actually had to be told to sit onstage during a performance, and still managed to stand and join in the final number) and other challenges, they ended up earning second place to a Hungarian choir.
(FYI, a first place finish requires a minimum of 85 points, which you can see they missed my only 0.3!)
An impressive result, but even more impressive was the fact that they immediately came to their feet in a standing ovation for the victorious choir when they were announced; I would like to believe I had that sort of composure and sportsmanship at that age, but I sincerely doubt it.
In the end, I am just as proud (albeit a little sad!) at this group's ability to contend with courage and accept second place with dignity and grace as I would have been with a gold medal finish. Fenya returned safe and sound, disappointed with the results but pleased with their efforts, and enriched by the experience; a tremendous success by any reasonable measure.
Cantilon has their own YouTube channel, but I am including two selections here: their Musical Sacra component and their performance from the finals. Between the two, I think they showcase not only the determination of these talented and dedicated young people, but also the tremendous quality of singing that results from it, duly amplified by the acoustics of an ancient European church.