by Amanda Bauman
If you ask me what is the best part of being an ACFEA Tour Manager, I’d say it’s not knowing what might happen next. I never know which group is going to be on the other end of the telephone when it rings, or what kind of project they have in mind. And never know where that telephone call might take me. If you’d like to know how one such call ultimately resulted in my coming face-to-face with a bucket of live tarantulas in the backwoods of Cambodia, well, read on…
The Boston Children’s Chorus (BCC) has a history of keeping me on my toes, and each time director Anthony Trecek-King gets that ‘I’m-dreaming-big look’ in his eyes, I know I’m in for something exciting, and possibly a little wild. When the telephone rang one afternoon last spring, it was ATK himself on the other end, with a big announcement: “It’s Southeast Asia!”. 18 months later, the group landed in Ho Chi Minh City, the first port of call on a tour that would also include Hanoi, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap – ACFEA’s first-ever tour of Vietnam and Cambodia.
Sending a group of American students to Vietnam, we thought it important that they learn the history of the Vietnam War (or ‘American War’, as it is called in Vietnam). So, in addition to formal concerts in the opera houses of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, the group also visited the War Remnants Museum and performed at an orphanage for children afflicted by the effects of Agent Orange. These types of organizations exist all over Vietnam, and the BCC learned a great deal about the ravaging and lasting effects of war.
I joined the group for the Cambodian leg of the tour, and on the first day in Phnom Penh we visited the S-21 prison and the Killing Fields. About 2 million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge in one of history’s most horrific genocides. Reading about the genocide in books, even seeing it in movies, cannot compare to the arresting impact of hearing stories from people who lived in the places where it actually happened. In the prison are thousands of photographs of Khmer Rouge soldiers and victims, most of which depict children the same age or younger than the members of BCC. The students understood the weight and gravity of what they were seeing, and took away an important lesson: that they, as this world’s next generation of leaders, are the ones who must ensure it doesn’t happen again.
During the reign of the Khmer Rouge, a boy named Arn Chorn-Pond escaped Cambodia and ended up in Jefferson, New Hampshire. He had been a musician, following in the traditional footsteps of his elders. As a result of the Khmer Rouge’s campaign to exterminate all artists, musicians and creative thinkers from the population, traditional Khmer arts nearly became extinct. As an adult, Chorn-Pond founded Cambodian Living Arts (CLA), an organization committed to reintroducing Khmer arts to young people. BCC contacted CLA in Phnom Penh, and during the tour the two groups convened one afternoon and taught each other their crafts. BCC taught solfege and eurhythmics to the CLA students, and the CLA students taught BCC Apsara dancing, chanting and how to play their traditional instruments. The workshop concluded with several small groups presenting to each other songs and dances that they had composed together. That evening, they performed a joint concert that served as a benefit for CLA.
No trip to Cambodia is complete without a visit to the awe-inspiring temples of Angkor Archeological Park. Enjoying the icing on the top of an incredible tour, the group spent the last two nights in the town of Siem Reap, the jumping-off point for temple visitors. The students each channeled their inner Indiana Jones and Lara Croft as they explored the ancient, jungle-covered temples.
While at Angkor Wat, the largest and most impressive of the temples, the group found themselves an amazing backdrop for an epic group photo: one of the large ancient swimming pools.
The acoustics were quite fine…I looked over at ATK, and saw ‘the look’. So, on July 4, in an empty swimming pool of the temple of Angkor Wat in the Cambodian jungle, the Boston Children’s Chorus gave an impromptu recital: for themselves, the ancient kings and the spirits of the Khmer people. Did I ever think I’d be listening to a chorus singing as beautifully as this, in a place as spectacular as this? Never. So, to put it simply: this is the best part of being an ACFEA Tour Manager.
Oh, and those tarantulas? I’m afraid I’m well over my word count, so that’s a story for another day.