Feb 10 2018

“The best possible reaction to help our grieving friends”

The Corona del Mar Madrigal Singers remained strong against the fears of terrorism, and gained an understanding of what it means to stand with those who mourn.

In November 2015, awful tragedy struck Paris when 130 people were killed in a series of coordinated terrorist attacks. The world grieved, but one high school choir director in southern California had an additional situation at hand: The city in the headlines was the same one at the top of the concert tour itinerary he’d travel in three months’ time with his choir.

Instead of canceling, Andrew Ball, the director, stood with his Corona Del Mar High School and its families in recognizing that their concerts could play an important role in the healing of the city’s citizens and education of their students. As he wrote to the tour members and families:

In response to tragedy and conflict, it is often musicians that act as envoys to bridge the rifts between nations and heal the wounds in peoples’ hearts. In light of the events that unfolded in Paris, it is vital that we stand with our European friends and family members, and show the aggressors that these acts of terrorism will do nothing but strengthen our ties and our support.

In this my administration and I are in agreement: it is more important now than ever that Madrigal Singers continue their planned tour of France, including our four day stay in that nation’s capital. It is with pride that I will conduct our concerts in the spirit of peace and brotherhood in a city that has suffered so much unnecessary hurt and loss, and it is certain to be an experience our students will never forget.

We caught up with Andy to see what lasting impressions that tour made on his students.

Tell us about your tour.

In February of 2016 the Corona del Mar Madrigal Singers took a ten day trip to France that included three primary destinations: Antibes in the south of France, Gap in the southern French Alps, and Paris. Antibes is a sister city of Newport Beach, where our school is located, and did a wonderful job of hosting our first concert at the Antibes Cathedral. In Gap we stayed in the homes of a local community chorus, with whom we shared a concert in a local church that was equally well attended.

Last was a four night stay in Paris which included, along with the necessary sightseeing, a Mass participation in Notre Dame and a concert in La Madeleine. To perform in those venues, so rich with history and significance, was a true highlight of my life, and the memory of those performances is one I will hold on to for many years to come.

Did you visit the attack site?

While we were only able to see the Bataclan Theatre in passing, the people of Paris had created an impromptu memorial at the Place de la République, where thousands of people had left signs and burned candles in memory of the victims of the attack. Upon hearing about this memorial, I insisted that we visit; when the time hasn’t been taken to make these events real and relevant, it is so easy to hear about attacks on the other side of the world and walk away with nothing more than a statistic. But to stand in that place, to see the hurt and the despair and the anger poured out in sign after sign after sign… it makes clear the impact an attack like this can have upon a culture and a people, affecting so many beyond simply those who have died.

After spending some time taking in the images at the Place de la République we joined together to sing Prayer of the Children, a song originally written in response to ethnic cleansing in what was then Yugoslavia, and one that felt incredibly relevant given the senseless violence of the Bataclan attack.

What was it like being in Paris after an event like this?

Surreal. It was surreal to be in Paris to begin with; it is a city with a timelessness about it. To be in a city that holds enough history to feel timeless at a time when so much immediate history has just taken place is almost disorienting. We don’t want to give up our romantic ideas, but faced with the reality of an attack like this we can’t help but adjust how we look at this city, and at the world at large.

How do the students remember the tour now?

As a life changing experience. A year and a half later when my most recent seniors were graduating, France remained a prominent feature of stories and speeches. The memory of the tour even made it into the Valedictorian’s speech – he was our Baritone section leader. What seems to have resonated the most was the incredible hospitality we encountered, especially in Antibes and Gap, and the images of the trip are still present on the walls of my classroom.

Do you think it changed how they view terrorist attacks which have happened since?

How could it not? I remember what it was like to grow up in the Southern California bubble – the first time I left the country (barring brief trips to Mexico) was when my high school choir traveled to Poland my junior year, and it changed my life. Learning about the second World War and the Holocaust in school was one thing; walking through the Auschwitz death camp and seeing the piles of hats, of glasses, of human hair… it’s something completely different.

When we read about history, especially when we are young and haven’t traveled much, it’s hard to make a real personal connection. We simply haven’t seen enough history to understand our place within it. But when we travel, when we see how life has been affected by historical events, when we see the damage that terrorist attacks can do both at the moment and in the aftermath, it makes it much easier to see where our bubble ends and the real world begins.

What lasting impressions do you think this tour made on your students?

On the flight home from France I asked all of my students to write about their experience, and many took the opportunity to write about the impact this trip had on their views of the world. One student wrote “The world is filled with violence, but I hold this to be true; if more people sang together, there would be no more wars. What we did was the best possible reaction to help our grieving friends.”

I know that my students will remember the places they went and the sights they saw, but I hope that most of all they will remember the people they met. Whether it was those who acted as part of the Sister City association, their hosts in Gap, or the citizens of Paris we saw contemplating the memorial of the Bataclan attack, it is the humanity of these places that leaves the biggest mark.

Photo by Marianne Swienink-Havard