Strings and Songs Go International

Goodbye Andover, hello Italia! On the final day of exams last term, 120 Phillips Academy students and faculty, including myself, boarded buses to Logan Airport, embarking upon a voyage of nearly four thousand miles. Fifteen long hours later, we landed in the city of Venice, the first stop on the 2007 Chamber Orchestra/Cantata tour of Italy. This journey actually began long before the details of the tour were finalized. Two terms ago, at the beginning of a Thursday evening Chamber Orchestra rehearsal, Director William Thomas handed out the parts to “Elijah.” Felix Mendelssohn composed this oratorio in 1846, outlining the life of the prophet as depicted in 1 Kings and 2 Kings of the Old Testament. For the past two terms, both the instrumentalists and the singers have devoted a countless number of hours to learning the complicated, two-and-a-half-hour masterpiece. After a bus took us from Marco Polo Airport to downtown Venice, we were transported by boat to our hotel, Monastery Don Orione. After we unpacked, we walked to a nearby tavern for a taste of authentic Italian lasagna and tiramisù. Later, we returned to the hotel for a welcome opportunity to get some sleep. The next morning, we headed to Piazza San Marco for a guided walking tour, during which we visited St. Mark’s Basicilia and Clock Tower, the Doge’s Palace and the Grand Canal. We also paid tribute to Venice’s centuries-long history as the glassmaking capital of the world by watching a glassblowing demonstration and visiting a local glass museum. Our first, highly anticipated concert was held in Church of Santa Maria del Rosario, a remarkable waterfront church just a short walk from the hotel. The stone interior caused a tremendous amount of reverberation, intensifying the impact of Mendelssohn’s dramatic chords, intricate orchestration and soaring choir lines. At the same time, the echo made it difficult for us to hear ourselves, so for the first half of the concert, I was unsure of how well we were performing. During intermission, however, a friendly middle-aged woman stopped me, identifying herself as an American working in Venice. She told me that watching us perform made her “proud to be an American,” immediately removing any doubts I previously had about our performance. After the conclusion of the concert, we learned that a number of the audience members had asked for a recording of the performance. This finally convinced us that all of our hard work had paid off. At our next stop, Florence, we had over seven hours of free time, which students used to explore the city’s many interesting neighborhoods, including the historic district and the leather quarter. We then drove eight hours down the Italian peninsula to reach Sorrento, arguably the most picturesque stop of the tour. We spent a number of days exploring the streets of the town and enjoying the dramatic cliffs of the Amalfi coast. During one particularly memorable afternoon, we visited the Grotta di Smeraldo. Also known as the Emerald Grotto, the Grotta di Smeraldo was a spectacular underwater stalactite cave. We then hopped on a ship to take advantage of the warm ocean wind and scenic coastline views of Amalfi, where we had our second concert. This concert was held in the Duomo Sant’Andrea, a magnificent ninth-century Sicilian Lombard-Norman-esque cathedral. The final city on our tour was Rome. We spent our first day touring the historic city center and the nearby Coliseum. Although the sporadic hailstorms made us miss the pleasant spring weather we had enjoyed for the first half of the trip, the city presented a wide variety of activities from which students could choose. Whether it was visiting museums, shopping, attending concerts, or sampling local cuisine, everyone seemed to enjoy the city. The next morning, many students got up early to visit the Pope in the Vatican. Others waited in line to enter the Sistine Chapel, explored other parts of the city, or simply slept in. Our final concert, in Church of Saint Paul Within the Walls, was perhaps the best attended. At the end, the beautifully carved and ornamented building rang with applause and the audience rose for a standing ovation. According to a local, this reaction “is not very common in [Italy].” Due to hours of preparation, practice and planning, the extremely well-coordinated Chamber Orchestra/Cantata tour was a resounding success. Neither the performers nor the stubborn pounds of mouthwatering gelato stuck to our waistlines are likely to forget the unique experience anytime soon.