Southern Chorale Takes Gold
Since its founding in 1995, Georgia Southern’s premier choral ensemble had never performed in a competition, let alone an international one. That changed on May 27, when the 31-member choir left Statesboro to participate in the renowned International Anton Bruckner Choral Competition and Festival in Linz, Austria. Even before leaving, Shannon Jeffreys, the University’s director of choral activities, felt confident the singers would meet her high expectations in the five-day event.
“We exceeded our goals by earning gold diplomas in all three categories and placing second in both the vocal chamber and compulsory categories,” said Jeffreys, who conducts Southern Chorale and the smaller chamber ensemble, Fermata the Blue.
The Chorale, the only American choir at the Austrian event, competed against 21 groups from 14 European and Asian countries. Southern Chorale performed in two categories for mixed-voice choirs – the Sacred Division and the more challenging Compulsory Division that required every choir to sing the same piece of music, composer Anton Bruckner’s Christus factus est. The 12-member Fermata the Blue performed in the vocal chamber category. The Chorale’s second place finish was less than one point behind the winning choir, Coro Siamo, from Vienna, Austria; Fermata the Blue was second only to the grand prize winning five-voice male ensemble from Germany.
Junior Jasmine Hines is a choral music education major and said pictures and words can barely summarize how extraordinary the experience was. “While we saw many ensembles that
were so technically correct it would amaze you, but we rarely saw any ensemble who sang from their heart. However, Southern Chorale was one of the few who did just that while bringing tears to the eyes of judges, officials, audience members and even other Chorale members,” she said. “I learned from this competition and this cultural experience that delivering the passion and message of the piece will almost always trump technique.”
Hines sees herself as a future music educator, but not all the singers in Southern Chorale are music majors. Auditions, are open to everyone. Trevor Connell, who graduated in May with a master’s in public administration, first joined the ensemble as an undergraduate. “To be able to work with student musicians that study this every day with my limited skill set is very humbling and is a testament to the program’s dedication to diversity and allowing participants a chance to earn the right to be a part of this group based on talent.”
The undertaking to perform in the international festival, followed by an eight-day tour of Italy, took massive amounts of intense rehearsals, planning and fundraising. Indeed, while Georgia Southern provided some of the financial backing for the students to participate in the competition, the singers found other ways to finance the cultural tour that took them to the Italian cities of Rome, Pisa, Spoleto and Florence.
“We fundraised constantly,” said Carolyn J. Bryan, music professor and tour manager. “One of the students even made a sign that read, ‘Will sing for airfare.’ They participated in the charity sale at Belk department store, gave benefit concerts, held raffles, had a huge rummage sale and even worked at Barberitos restaurant one evening for a portion of the proceeds.”
Southern Chorale is an academic class that meets both semesters, and the second part of the European trip was designed as an international study abroad program for the singers to explore art, architecture, food and culture. In addition, the Chorale performed with the Corale Puccini in Camigliano, Italy, sang in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi and performed during a Saturday High Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.
“The music director at the Vatican said that Southern Chorale was one of the finest choirs he has heard,” noted Jeffreys, who is beginning her third year on the faculty. “Many Americans were in the congregation and greeted us enthusiastically following the service. It was hard to take our formal group photo because so many people were crowding in to get a picture.”
During the week prior to their departure for Europe, the musicians held intensive day-long rehearsals and were “immersed in the history and culture of Italy,” said Bryan. The tour manager’s responsibilities encompassed such wide-ranging duties as planning the itinerary, processing medical information forms, booking airline travel, managing the budget, making sure students had passports, and providing them with information on currency exchange, credit card use abroad, and even instructions on packing and laundry.
Bryan, a 16-year faculty member, said the trip provided many highlights, but “the camaraderie that grew within the Chorale – in a group that was already closely-knit — was moving to observe and be a part of.”
Chorale members hailed the experience as extraordinary and one they will never forget. Everything sophomore Catherine Lentz encountered was “profound, new and exciting,” since it was her first trip aboard, but she described as most touching the joint concert with the Corale Puccini, a choir of older adults who spoke no English. “That night language barriers didn’t exist as we shared excellent homemade food and our common goal – making beautiful music. I’ve learned that whether Chorale is in St. Peter’s Basilica or a small church in Camigliano, Italy, we fill every space with our passion for music.”
Jeffreys said she was very proud of Southern Chorale’s accomplishment and that it brought recognition to the group and to the University. For her one of the most memorable moments was the celebration dinner on Mt. Lussari after the successful competition. “We were alone on the top of the mountains for a feast and celebration — singing together for fun and enjoying the beauty of the Julian Alps and our time together.” – Sandra Bennett
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