Concert Choir brings Williams’ voices to Italy

Add choral music to the list of things for which Williams is known. Three years ago, with blessings from the President’s office, the music department decided to make the improvement of its struggling choral music program a priority. Brad Wells was hired and the rest, as they say, is history.

The program, which once had barely 35 members in one choir, boasted 70 members last year and this year’s group is even larger. Tours and recordings have always been the way that the best college choirs have gained widespread recognition for themselves and for their institutions. It seems the choir is on the right track; our first tour to Southern Italy and Rome was a huge success and the most common question we fielded from audiences was, “Do you have recordings for sale?”

The tour, which had been in the works for almost two years, started the day after final exams in May. With the exception of a little bad luck – we narrowly averted an airline strike, one van suffered a flat tire minutes away from Logan airport (but was rescued) and once in Italy, our double-decker bus broke down in the middle of farm country – all went smoothly. More than 60 singers, plus Wells, his wife Betsy, music department chair David Kechley (affectionately dubbed “Kechlacho” by the choir) and his wife Jerilee (adjunct-teacher of flute) represented Williams in four full-length concerts and two church services, including one in Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

The 80-minute concerts, performed completely a cappella, were extremely well-received, usually with standing ovations. Audiences, especially in the towns of Noto, Cefalu (near Palermo) and Sorrento (near Naples) appreciated the difficult repertoire and were impressed that the entire program was done from memory. Audiences were also delighted by eight different soloists, Italian-speech-giver-alto Ingrid Seyb ’04 and the human pitch pipe alto C.J. Tyson ’01. Highlights of the program included the Herculean Mass for Double Choir by Frank Martin, works of American Gospel music, Italian madrigals and three arrangements by Williams musicians.

Apart from concerts, the choir sang in churches, in ancient amphitheaters (in Pompeii), in piazzas, at the Pantheon in Rome, on some street corners and anywhere else an audience could be found. This last practice started before the first concert in Noto, and it became a popular one. The phenomenon of unsuspecting locals and tourists turning from their activities and reflexively walking towards the choir the moment it began singing, either in a piazza, an outdoor rehearsal in the park or during a guided tour in a famous church, was a powerful one. In addition to adults and tourists, the choir befriended some children playing on the street in Naples who stopped their soccer game to sing along and take an impromptu conducting lesson from Wells. The choir even managed reached a few local dogs, most memorably in Pompeii where Joel Schmid ’03 was trying out the acoustics in an excavated amphitheater and had no choice but to settle for a duet with a very vocal canine.

A memorable day for many was in Cefalu, a small town in Southern Italy. Many members spent all day at the beach swimming in a postcard-worthy bay.

After a group dinner, there was a concert hosted by a local church choir. The choir gave its most heartfelt concert, literally bringing tears to many members of the host choir, and, actually, to me as well. After the last piece, in a public gift exchange, one host said, in Italian, “I do not have the words to express our gratitude to you because the singing was so beautiful.” Wells, in his best shaky Italian, responded, “I do not have the words to express our gratitude to you because I do not speak Italian!” Before leaving, the choir talked with the local choir members, who asked all about Williams, the music program and the choir’s travels.

Members of the choir will disagree about which their favorite concert was, whether small towns like Noto or grand ones like Rome were preferred, where the best gelato in Italy can be found, or which church was the most impressive (artistically or acoustically); however, this was the extent of diverging opinions about the tour. The tour was a huge success for the music department, the school and certainly the singers.