Will Hehemann | School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences
The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Vesper Choir recently returned from a weeklong tour around Madrid, Spain, where they performed in historical venues including the Church of San Manuel and San Benito, the royal palace at El Escorial and the Church of St. John the King.
Dr. Michael Bates, Vesper Choir director, led the group of 49 student and staff members of the choir on a program titled “An American Celebration of Music in Spain.” In addition to concerts, the students’ agenda included visits to historical landmarks and museums where they learned about Spanish history and culture.
During the concerts, the choir performed selections by composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Heinrich Schutz, Francis Poulenc and George Frideric Handel. Performances also included a selection of spirituals and gospel songs.
“One of our biggest successes was the concert at the Church of St. John the King in Toledo,” Dr. Bates said. “I was told that at least 225 people were in attendance. There was sustained applause after almost every selection and a prolonged standing ovation at the end of the concert. We even did an encore performance when the audience didn’t stop applauding.”
At the royal palace at El Escorial, the choir performed for the El Escorial Boys’ Choir, a chorus of about 50 children who reside and receive academic and musical training at the Royal Monastery at El Escorial. Following UAPB’s performance, the boys’ choir took the stage, and later members of each choir were able to meet each other.
“Performance experiences of this sort validate students’ training, ability and talent,” Dr. Bates said. “Being able to sing in the gothic cathedral in Toledo and in the neo-byzantine church in Madrid gives new meaning to an individual’s musical experience. The chance to experience the positive reactions of the people in attendance in this foreign setting was an added plus that was especially gratifying.”
Mary Rowe, a sophomore music education major from Dermott, Arkansas, said she was surprised during two of the concerts when she noticed the venues were filled to capacity with an even mixture of younger and older attendees.
“What 20-year-olds do you know who want to go to a choral concert on a Saturday night?” she said. “The local people’s appreciation for music was a beautiful thing.”
Evan Murray, a senior physical education major from Pine Bluff, said the chance to perform for a foreign audience was unforgettable.
“The trip to Spain was an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything, and I absolutely had the time of my life with my Vesper family,” he said. “The most memorable experiences were performing for people of a different ethnicity and having the chance to visit several palaces and historical sites. The main thing that I loved about Spain’s historical landmarks was that even though they were hundreds of years old, everything was still up to par and had a rich look to it that amazed me.”
On a tour through Madrid – the capital and largest city in Spain – the students learned about the historical context of the Spanish monarchy and its relation to contemporary Spanish history. Topics on the tour included the growth of the city of Madrid over the past thousand years, the Moorish conquest and lasting cultural influences, the fascist politics of Francisco Franco Bahamonde in the mid-20th century, as well as the country’s eventual modernization and integration into the European community.
“The tours were quite amazing,” said Ricky Wade, a senior music major from Little Rock. “We learned so much about the Spanish culture and way of life. The visit to the royal palace at El Escorial was very interesting. It amazed me that the buildings were built so many years ago and are still as beautiful as they once were.”
At the Prado Museum, the main national museum of Spanish art, the students took part in an art history lesson in which they learned about the styles, techniques and religious history related to Spanish visual arts from the 14th to the 21st centuries.
“The art we experienced was what I enjoyed most about travelling to Spain,” Rowe said. “Some of the churches we visited I had only ever seen in my humanities course textbook. To actually stand in a place that has remained untouched for hundreds of years was humbling and awe inspiring.”
Dr. Bates said the choir’s trip to Spain reflects UAPB’s mission to equip students to participate in a global environment.
“The more experience our students gain from international engagement, the easier it will be for them to understand and participate in the global society we are currently living in,” he said. “Programs like this help students gain an understanding of different cultures and customs, as well as experience new outlooks. They undergo personal development and gain a level of confidence that comes from a greater cultural awareness.”
Dr. Bates said the tour in Spain was also a fitting way to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Vesper Choir, which was originally established by Professor Ariel “Pops” Lovelace, then chairman of the Music Department, and was later directed by Professor Shelton J. “Fessor” McGee for over 40 years. Dr. Bates has served as director of the choir since 1999.