Guest Baltic Blog from Embry: The Music Part

Joe has been filling you in about our very enjoyable trip to the Baltic countries, but I thought I would write a short “guest blog” about the singing part of the trip.  (I know he has some readers who are fellow singers, who might be wanting a bit more detail.)

The idea for this trip got started when I was invited by Ben Hutchens, the former choir director at our church, All Souls Episcopal Church, to sing with his current choir (Westminster Presbyterian in Alexandria, Va.) on their tour to Latvia and Estonia.  I had always wanted to visit this part of the world, and this gave me a good excuse to go along as an extra alto singer.  Joe threw up his hand to go along as a “non-singer,” and we added stays in Lithuania and Finland on at the beginning and end of the trip to round it out.

Ben’s choir brought about 30 singers and bell ringers, and there were other non-singers and a few of Ben’s other choir members for a total group of 42.  He picked a wonderful repertoire of mostly American music (with some British).  If you are a singer, particularly in a church choir, take a look at what we sang (if not, skip down!):

Laudate Nomen Domini:  Christopher Tye

Panis Angelicus:  Thomas Pavlechko (modern American composer)

Chorale for Bells (bell choir)

Ubi Caritas: Maurice Duruffle

O Nata Lux:  Charles Villiers Stanford

Jesus Christ the Apple Tree:  Stanford Scriven

There is No Rose:  Donald MacDonald  (modern American composer, sung by a female octet)

Easter Anthem: William Billings

How Can I Keep from Singing:  Sondra K. Tucker (bell choir)

How Can I Keep from Singing:  Robert Lehman

My God is a Rock:  Alice Parker and Robert Shaw

Ain’t a That Good News: William Dawson

In His Care-O:  William Dawson

In addition, an organist (from another Northern Virginia church) performed two pieces. (I do not have the information on the names or composers of those pieces, as they were not in the printed program and I didn’t recognize them.) She performed them beautifully.  That was challenging, since each organ was different and she had little rehearsal time. She also conducted three of our pieces so that Ben could fill in with his nice voice and sing along with us.  All pieces were performed A Capella.

We performed all of this music in three concerts, one each in Riga (Latvia), Parnu (Estonia), and Tallinn (Estonia)—about a 1 ½ hour program with no intermission. We also participated in the Sunday service in Riga.  In each case, the concerts were in beautiful historic Lutheran churches with good acoustics. We had (barely) enough time to rehearse together ahead of each program, but obviously we got better as the trip went on and learned how to sing the music!

The concerts were all well attended, and the audiences were so attentive and enthusiastic. (The especially were fascinated with the bell ringing, which does not seem to be common here.)  Ben had prepared an encore, and it was requested at the end of each concert by enthusiastic clapping, which in Europe proceeds from random clapping to the audience clapping in unison with a loud “CLAP, CLAP, CLAP…” until you give the encore.  We were glad to do it, since their enthusiasm made it worth the effort of preparing the music and traveling so far to perform it.  In spite of this, I think we were all relieved when the last concert was over, and we could take off our concert dress and just relax.

This is my fourth choir tour to Europe, starting with a tour with my mother in 1988. We joined a tour of the Cathedral Choral Society and Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, which performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the old square of Warsaw with the Warsaw Opera Chorus.  It was just before the Berlin Wall came down.  This was a life-changing experience for me.  I have never forgotten the thrill of singing in a historic place, and ho–in that setting–Beethoven’s joyful music seemed to overcome the sadness from the past and lead to optimism about the future.  Indeed, at just that moment, all was about to change dramatically for Poland and all of Eastern Europe.

The Baltic Countries also suffered horribly through the World Wars and the Cold War, but they never gave up hope.  Singing was a huge factor in uniting the people of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia ( through the “Singing Revolution”).  Now an entirely new, free society has emerged. As with my first choir tour to Poland, this choir tour made me feel that I could be just a tiny part of that wonderful, historic process.  Once I finally learned the notes and rhythms, I began to think about the words of the songs we sang, and how appropriate they were for the place and time.  I will close with the words of “How Can I Keep from Singing”:

I hear the sweet, though far off hymn that hails a new creation.

My life flows on in endless song above earth’s lamentation.

Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing;

It finds an echo in my soul—how can I keep from singing?

What though my joys and comforts die, the Lord my Savior liveth.

What though the darkness gather round, songs in the night he giveth.

No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that refuge clinging.

Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?

I lift mine eyes, the clouds grow thin; I see the blue above it.

And day by day this pathway smooths, since I first learned to love it.

The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart, a fountain ever springing.

All things are mine, since I am His.  How can I keep from singing?

4 thoughts on “Guest Baltic Blog from Embry: The Music Part

  1. Thank you both for all of these blogs. There is such depth to your thoughts and observations! I wish I had been able to go on this trip. Maybe next time.

  2. Wish we could have heard the concerts you gave. Diane and I always visited churches and halls
    to hear concerts when we were on our annual 3 day pathology conferences to Europe – before
    the 7-day bike trips we went on (1994 thru 2018). I remember Vienna and Prague (beautiful Concertgebouw
    Hall) especially. We did love the Estonians when we biked there, too.
    Enjoyed the Guest blog.

  3. Embry,
    I sing tenor in our church’s choir, but the only one I recognize is “How Can I Keep From Singing” which was actually done by a men’s chorus I used to sing with. I think our two choir directors have different tastes. All that said, I don’t generally pay much attention to the titles and composers. I’m just trying to get a handle on the notes!

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