Blazing the Balkan Trail

In the fall of 2010, Singing City, directed by Jeff Brillhart, began the process of planning its next tour, slated for July of 2012. After weighing a few options, the choir fixed its eyes and hearts on the Balkans (including Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia and Montenegro). To understand the motivation and complexity of the decision to travel to a new destination, we spoke with Mr. Brillhart and Lauren Anderson, Singing City’s Executive Director.

First, why the Balkans?
Jeff Brillhart: Singing city was founded in 1948 as one of America’s first integrated choirs and for 64 years we’ve been committed to breaking down barriers between people of different colors, religions and cultural backgrounds. For us, the very recent, ethnically charged history of the Balkans was what drew us to the region. Their formidable choral tradition was an added bonus.

Although ACFEA has taken groups to Croatia and Serbia, we had never sent a group to Bosnia or to Montenegro. How did you weigh the risk of being the first against the potential for great reward?
Lauren Anderson: Singing City members are very open to new places and ideas. Having worked with ACFEA before, we were confident that you could fashion a trip that would resonate with our approach to traveling and singing abroad.

While many choir members receive announcements saying they would be traveling to Italy, Germany or the French Riviera, your choir got the word they would be heading to Bosnia. How did they respond to the unconventional nature of the destination?
LA: Singing City has a unique history, and that includes its tour destinations. The first tours were to the American South in the 50s and 60s, during the Civil Rights era. This was a bold step for an integrated choir at that time. These tours were followed by trips to Egypt in the 80s, and then to the former Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba in 2002, Northern Ireland in 2006 and finally Brazil in 2009. Our tours have always taken us to places that have known strife; it’s a part of our culture. After announcing the tour to the Balkans, and Bosnia in particular, there was excitement and, of course, many questions. We planned the trip two years out, so there was ample time for singers to learn about the culture, the history, the language and the customs.

And how did the tour itself meet their expectations?
LA: Everyone loved the trip, even the ones who were a little skeptical beforehand! We met wonderful people, sang in some of the most beautiful places imaginable, were feted by our host choirs, learned much about each country’s history and were challenged to understand more about the diverse cultures and religious groups that make up the region.

Indulge us: what was the highlight of your tour?
JB: If there was a clear message about humanity’s hope to live together, it came during our final concert in Kotor, Montenegro, hosted by the church’s superb youth choir, the Serbian choral assembly Unity. Sharing no common language, we reached unity through the singing of a work that was in a language foreign to all of us: Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Bogoroditse Devo. We hadn’t planned on performing together at all, but just before the concert their director and I compared repertoire, found the piece in common and decided to sing it together totally unrehearsed. And so, at the conclusion of the concert, as I gave the downbeat, all incredibly understood what was to happen and the music poured forth. At the climax of the work, I cued all of the young Montenegrin basses to enter with our basses. Together they let out the most remarkable unison I’ve ever heard. At that moment I realized what is desperately needed is for people to communicate with one another, instead of refusing to communicate with those whose views are different from our own.