June 22, 2015
By Mike Killeen
For most people, the greatest venue they will ever sing in is the shower - off key, of course.
But the Choral Arts Ensemble from the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University recently sang in some of Europe's finest churches and concert venues.
The 50-voice choir performed six concerts and contributed music for three Liturgies while on a concert tour May 14-29 of Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic.
It was an inspiring tour with three highlights, according to Ramond Mitchell, who will be a junior this fall at SJU and sang bass in the ensemble.
"The first highlight was walking into these churches, and being in Europe in general," Mitchell said. "Being a theology major, it was interesting to see a different aspect how people design churches. The second highlight was the singing, of course. Singing in those spaces, in some of the best spaces for making music and organ music was awesome. The third highlight was just being with everyone - being with friends, being with people you've never spoken to before and becoming friends. That was pretty interesting."
"It's part of what I like everybody to experience," said Axel Theimer, professor of music at CSB and SJU who directs the Choral Arts Ensemble. "We have the opportunity to sing music in places which it was meant to be performed in. That in itself has become an amazingly spiritual experience for many.
"You are in awe because you're in spaces that have been around longer than the United States, churches that were built centuries ago. You can be overwhelmed by the architecture - the size of churches like the Cathedral in Köln or St. Stephen's in Vienna - or be stunned by their beauty, like St. Peter's Church in Vienna or Melk Abbey.
"It is impossible not to be affected by it all, and it enables us to bring the music back to life the way it possibly was intended to be heard when it was first performed," Theimer added.
The Choral Arts Ensemble consists of members of the SJU Men's Chorus, the CSB Women's Choir or the Chamber Choir. Theimer invites members of those groups a year in advance, asking them to consider performing and traveling with the Choral Arts Ensemble.
If there are enough students to fill the choir, Theimer completes the travel arraignments. Students pay their own way (this year's trip was $3,300).
For Mitchell, the trip took on added significance.
"I realized I couldn't study abroad, and that was the first part (of going). But it was also the aspect of being able to sing in a different country for three weeks. It's something we probably could never, ever do again," Mitchell said. "I probably could never sing in these spaces again, in these countries again, in these kinds of churches again, without going on this trip."
Theimer says he regularly tries to schedule one such trip every four years. He hopes to maintain that schedule, and possibly add shorter, less expensive trips to Canada, Mexico or even possibly Cuba in-between the longer trips.
Mitchell said that the experience can change a person for the better.
"Just thinking back, Axel planned the trip in a way where we were kind of living the Benedictine values while we were there. We lived with each other, we lived as a community, we did community activities, we did a lot spirituality," he said.
"One of my friends told me, 'I came on this trip with no expectations. I just wanted to go. I came back with so much.' That stood out. You come on (a trip) with no expectations, but you come out with wow, this great experience."