Monday, January 25, 2016

“Y’all gotta try the grits.”

Come Sunday morning of our University Chorale Winter 2016 Tour, I was feeling quite Southern. Along with three other girls, I had the pleasure of staying with the pastor and his wife in a pleasant suburb of Birmingham. We were blessed to stay in such a beautiful home, decorated brilliantly by our lovely and hospitable host mother, a former interior designer. More enjoyable than the home itself, though, was the warmth of the company that received us. Upon our arrival the evening prior, we were invited to enjoy snacks and conversation in a room with big windows and a view of the trees right outside. There were lots of smiles and laughs shared, especially regarding the first order of business: right after we “had a sit-down” in the comfy armchairs, our host mother began the conversation with, “So. Tell me about the boys.” The pastor and his wife were in familiar territory, having three daughters of their own. “We know all about this life,” they told us with a smile. After learning more about their family, as well as Birmingham, Alabama, we said good night to one another, looking forward to a hearty Southern breakfast at 7:30.

“You have to try grits,” our host parents told us. “You don’t have to eat all of ‘em, you can just take a bit if y’all want, but you have to try grits. You’re in the South.” We could tell we were in the South, alright, by the breakfast in front of us Sunday morning. We were grateful recipients of wonderful cooking and helped ourselves to a cheesy egg and sausage casserole, warm biscuits with jam and butter, and, of course, grits (combined with an abundance of butter, cheese, and salt). I was especially appreciative of the coffee our beautiful hostess offered us, as well. “I don’t even want to think,” she told me, accent and all, “about a day without coffee.”

After finishing our breakfast – and giving our hearty consent of grits, at which point we were declared to have passed the test to be a Southerner – we packed our bags into the car, waved goodbye to the home we had only spent a night in but were nonetheless attached to, and headed to Vestavia Hills Baptist Church. We enjoyed hearing from the pastor’s wife about how many opportunities there were to give in Birmingham, and about all the outreach work the church engages in to better its community. She stressed that the church sought to welcome all, regardless of socioeconomic status or life situation. We certainly felt welcome that Sunday.

Though the service was at 10, University Chorale met in a choir room behind the sanctuary an hour beforehand to rehearse and debrief. (We would sing a few songs during the service.) We discussed what we learned and appreciated during the clinic with Dr. Bara at UGA, and walked through the service lineup with Dr. Terre Johnson, the Director of Music at Vestavia Hills and a good friend of Dr. Galante.

When it was time, we exited the choir room and sat underneath the cross in the choir seats at the front of the sanctuary. The traditional service was very lovely. The sanctuary was a bright and calm place, the room warm with color as the sun shone through stained-glass windows. The service began with one of our Christmas pieces, “There is Faint Music.” Later on, we sang “O Salutaris Hostia,” and closed the service with “I Can Tell the World,” to the delight of the congregation. In between we sang hymns with familiar tunes accompanied by the organ, and we greatly enjoyed the gospel readings, read with strong Southern accents and sincerity. The sermon (given by our host father!) was entitled “Care,” and, regardless of our unique backgrounds, I think its message rang true in all of us.

Following the service, we were heartily thanked, and gave thank-you’s in return to the generous congregation members. We said goodbye to the people who had adopted us for the night, filed back into the bus, and, still in our “Sunday best,” headed to Birmingham’s Galleria Mall.

As we had a few hours before our next gig, Dr’s Ezhokina, Lyman, and Galante had lunch with Dr. Johnson, while Chorale ate and explored in the spacious mall. A great variety of activities took place (Though, what else would you expect, when 42 college students on a big road trip stop at a giant mall?). While some of us engaged in typical activities like gracing the coffee shops and doing a little shopping, others got quite creative.

A few girls tried on princess-esque gowns at a dress shop, several boys made it their goal to set foot in every single store (quite a feat!), and the mall’s carousel and escalators offered endless fun and shenanigans. (Being in Sunday heels since 7:30am did not offer endless fun and shenanigans, might I add.)
After a few hours, we met back at the bus to travel to the Cathedral of St. Paul for a performance exchange with two local university choirs: the University of Montevallo, and the University of Alabama-Birmingham. The University Chorale looked less than uniform in our various attire: church clothes with quirky additions such as Vans shoes and jackets for comfort (A look I’d like to call, Sunday Best, with a Twist!). Montevallo and UAB, on the other hand, were in formal concert attire: black tuxes (some even had coattails!) and dresses with pearls. And they certainly matched the grandeur of the breathtaking cathedral. We felt a little underdressed. And a bit confused. Was this an official performance?

“So, is this an exchange or a concert?” I asked Dr. Galante. “Yes!” he replied. Well, that was helpful.

Whatever it was, people slowly starting drifting into the cathedral while each choir briefly rehearsed. After all had a chance to do so, each singer pulled out a copy of Alice Parker’s “Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal.” Though many had not so much as glanced at the music before, we would run the song a couple of times, and then sing it at the end of the performance-concert-exchange-thingamabob-whatever-it-was.  The objective was not a perfect end result; the objective was the collaboration of three different choirs, most of us strangers to each other, seizing the opportunity of being in the same place at the same time and having the same desire: to have a musical conversation. To be unified, even for just a few minutes, by a common goal: a song.

It was great to have the chance to listen to fellow college choirs, and accomplished ones at that. After enjoying the performances of Montevallo, under the direction of Dr. Melinda Doyle, and UAB, directed by Dr. Brian Kittredge, we made our way to the front of the glorious cathedral. Our set of four songs included “Richte Mich Gott,” “O Salutaris Hostia,” “Let Beauty Be Our Memorial,” and, yet again, “I Can Tell the World.” Our kind audience gave us a hearty applause, especially after “Salutaris” – our soloists had done a fabulous job, and truly sounded like angels in the cathedral.

Indeed, the Cathedral of St. Paul was simply a blast to sing in. When we sang, it felt as though the room came alive, like the walls and ceilings and majestic columns were singing with us. Singing “Hark I Hear” was a special experience, with over 120 voices joining together to produce a warm, gold-colored sound. We sang and the cathedral sang back to us.

After the performance, we said goodbye to our fellow singers, our faces lit up with smiles after having the chance to sing in a place with such great acoustics. Still in our less-than-comfortable Sunday best, we boarded our second home (the bus) and tried to muster some enthusiasm for the four-hour ride ahead. We were bound for Crawfordville, Florida, y’all!

After about an hour of driving we stopped in Montgomery, Alabama to eat a quick dinner. Tired and eager to change into pajamas, we were a bit grumpy about the three hours of driving that remained. But spirits were lifted (at least, mine were!) when we popped Star Wars: Episode VI into the bus DVD player and spent our evening with storm-troopers and ewoks.

Shortly before 1am, we pulled into the Best Western in Crawfordville, a town just outside of Tallahassee, Florida. We had instructions to be ready to go at 9:00, Monday morning, to depart to Manatee Springs State Park in the morning. I don’t know about the others, but as for me, I was eager to crawl into bed. I fell asleep when my head hit the pillow.

More to come about our (exciting? spontaneous? alarming? Just what is the correct word?) Monday adventures tomorrow!

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