Emerald isle enchants HRV singers with a bejeweled journey and a bit’o mischief

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

— Herodotus

The inspiring quote above, often misattributed as the U.S. Postal Service motto, is fitting to describe the Hood River Valley High School Chamber Singers’ recent adventures in Ireland during a nine-day performance tour.

These modern-day couriers of our shared humanity — evident through their vibrant teen voices — made their rounds in the green valleys and teeming cities of the Emerald Isle.

Under the direction of music teacher Mark Steighner, 63 students and a dozen adult chaperones began a whirlwind musical journey across both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, departing Hood River on March 21.

Resplendent with prepared music spanning several centuries and bedecked with matching soldier blue choir jackets sponsored by Hood River Lions club members, the singers and “staff” took off from Seattle aiming for Belfast, Northern Ireland.

All true journeys begin with a bit of hardship and this was no exception. Perhaps the result of a wee bit of leprechaun mischief, the crew of 75 people arrived at Heathrow airport in London to discover an epic winter ice storm had shut down the Belfast airport, their final destination.

Making the best of the many hours spent awaiting emergency tour accommodations in London and rebooked flights for the following day, the choir piled up suitcases and napped briefly, until the jet lag lessened, then roused themselves to grace airport visitors and staff with selections of their prepared tour music.

English airport bobbies, locals and international visitors alike gathered around to hear the angelic tones that filled the airport lobby. Students, tired but eager to share, elucidated musical harmonies and melodies from the Renaissance through contemporary composers.

Perhaps not the most scenic moment of the tour, this snapshot does, however, epitomize the spirit that carried the group throughout the days ahead — beauty created and shared, challenges good-naturedly endured and cross-cultural bridges built unexpectedly.

For Steighner, this initial performance — and the dozen or more additional formal and impromptu ones that followed during the tour — all served an important purpose.

“On a purely technical and musical level, singers need the experience of adjusting to new performance venues, acoustics and audiences,” said Steighner. “As humans — and performers — we want to feel like we are effective communicators and that our music transcends the superficial borders of culture; that people can enjoy and appreciate the music of the choir because it contains an element of truth and beauty that is universal.”

Facing brutally cold weather daily and a voice-killing virus that affected many on the trip, the stalwart singers still managed to keep up a fast-paced and exciting tour schedule.

Following a counter-clockwise, semi-circular route from Belfast along the western coast of Northern Ireland to the north coast of the Republic of Ireland until reaching Dublin, the choir was housed in two small towns along with the two main cities: Wesport, a quaint historical fishing village, and Tuam, a mid-sized town.

Day trips to diverse towns and natural areas including Dundela, Galway, the Cliffs of Moher, Croagh Patrick, the Connemara mountains and valleys, Kylemore Abbey and Loughrea added to the wide variety of cultural and scenic experiences; with “bog-hopping” being surely the most unique of those experiences.

Concerts were performed in petite and grand venues, both secular and sacred (Protestant and Catholic faiths) alike including: St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, St. Mark’s Church in Dundela, Holy Trinity Church in Westport, St. Nicholas’ Church in Galway, St. Brendan’s Cathedral in Loughrea, the Maritime Museum of Dublin, All Saints Anglican Church in Mullingar, and in a Loughrea hotel ballroom with students of a local nonprofit known as Music Matters.

One of the memorable moments for students was the opportunity to perform in the ancient megalithic passage tomb at Knowlth — one of the oldest known human sites of worship in Ireland dating from 1,500 B.C.

In an earthen chamber beneath the ground, ancient spirits and fellow tourists were roused to hear haunting melodies fill the once-hallowed tunnels throughout the burial chambers. Upon returning to the visitor center, students again filled the modern gathering place with ethereal voices that reminded those present of the way in which the human voice has resonated across history.

In another tour highlight in a room akin to a Harry Potter Hogwarts set, many of the students took time to view the Book of Kells at Trinity College in Dublin. This ancient hand-penned biblical text, illuminated with colorful and intricate illustrations, was created around the year 800, by some of the first monks to bring Christianity to the island’s Celts.

The visit to the book, housed just below the Long Room library of the college, then provided students another once-in-a-lifetime moment: They stood dwarfed and in awe amidst the beauty and profundity of thousands of additional ancient texts, folios and first editions of the library, revering the wisdom of humankind.

For Steighner, one of the highlights occurred early in the tour while visiting Belfast. There, the group was invited to work in person with famed English composer and conductor Philip Stopford, who wrote a new choral piece commissioned specifically for the HRV singers.

The soulful and uplifting work, entitled “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” was written using text from an existing hymn written in 1707. The choir, under Stopford’s conducting, performed the piece at St. Mark’s Church in Dundela.

“For me, working with Phillip Stopford on the premiere of his piece was a special event,” said Steighner. “Philip is a great composer and a skilled choral director and had good energy and rapport with the singers.”

That event, and the many church performances to follow, was all part of the educational goal of the trip, which included the selection of venues that spanned several centuries of architectural design, according to Steighner.

“The students need to experience choral music in the types of spaces for which it was written: stone churches and cathedrals, etc,” he said. Much of the early music performed by the group was specifically written to allow for the long sound reverberation those ancient church spaces engender.

When in Galway, the choir entered St. Nicholas’ church and maneuvered themselves just under the apex of the vaulting stone cruciform ceiling. As they began to sing Bruckner’s “Christus Factus Est” the singers uniformly began to raise their eyes toward the heavens as they listened, with incredulity, while their own, once-small voices rose upward into a shimmering celestial-bound tsunami of sound.

The lucky parents and church visitors in the audience that day were compelled likewise to close their eyes in soul-affirming appreciation.

While difficult to sum up nine days of experiences in this short review, students and parents alike reflected on their experience of the Irish people and their beautiful country as uniformly welcoming, warm, appreciative, engaging and generous.

As to what Mark Steighner and the students hope to have left behind? Respect, beauty, a shared humanity and a picture of American youth that is hopeful and impassioned about the power of music to heal a world of increasing disconnection.

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