Tech choir tours Eastern Europe

HOUGHTON – The former area of Yugoslavia conjures up images of war and civil unrest for many people, but for some members of the Michigan Tech Concert Choir, the Eastern European region is where many great memories were recently made.

After months of planning, 52 people – 39 of whom were singers, ranging from 16 to 78 years old – toured Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia and Italy from May 8-20, performing five concerts along the way.

“It was a lot of preparation, a lot of logistical and administrative kinds of things we had to prepare for, but the tour was very successful from beginning to end,” said Jared Anderson, third-year director of the choir. “… There were remnants of communism in some ways, but you could also see some countries really flourishing.”

Mostar, for example, a city where the choir performed in Bosnia and Herzegovina, had buildings with holes from bullets and mortar shells, but also beautiful pieces of architecture, such as the world-famous Old Bridge.

“It’s the first time I’ve seen clear evidence in Bosnia of the conflict after the break-up of Yugoslavia,” said Susan Martin, Tech professor and choir member for about 20 years. “There are cemeteries that are crammed full of people that all died during the same month and same year.”

Seeing first-hand the region’s sad history was an eye-opening experience for many choir members, including the 15 student-age singers, many of whom had taken a class prior to going on the trip taught by Tech professor Brad Baltensperger about the region.

“I thought the trip was an absolutely fantastic experience,” said third-year biology major Emily Jarvi, who has been singing with the choir since her first semester at Tech. “We saw a lot of different places and were able to share our music with the people there.”

The choir members flew out of the Chicago airport on the morning of May 8, traveling to Charlotte, N.C. and on to Munich, Germany, before finally reaching Tirana, Albania by about noon May 9.

The next day they took a coach bus to Budva, Montenegro, a day before they performed a joint concert with The Serbian Choral Assembly “Unity” in St. Nicholas’s Orthodox Cathedral in the nearby town of Kotor.

“We were connected by one of the conductors there. It was neat to be able to sing some of the Orthodox motets under his direction, because he was coming from that tradition,” Anderson said.

The group sang “a pretty eclectic mix” of music during the trip, according to Anderson, including traditional Roman Catholic and Orthodox sacred songs, pieces by American and Canadian composers, African-American spirituals, American folk songs and even some Croatian and Slovenian folk songs in their language.

“It was so cool to see the looks of recognition from people in the audience. It really meant something to them,” Jarvi said. “We could sing it a million times, but to me, it’s just singing a beautiful piece in another language that I don’t really get. To them, it was as if we came in and sang ‘Amazing Grace,’ or a song that everyone recognizes.”

On May 12, the choir group’s courier led them to Dubrovnik, a city on the Adriatic Sea coast of Croatia, where they took a tour that included the entrance to the city walls. The choir performed that night in the cathedral before heading to Mostar the next day and performing again.

Choir members traveled to Zadar, Croatia on May 15, another city on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, where they got to swim.

“The water was cold, but it was no big deal for us,” Anderson said with a smile. “It was like swimming in Lake Superior in the summer.”

“I felt like I had accomplished something on my bucket list or something,” added Jarvi. “It was great.”

On May 16 the choir performed in St. Anastasia’s Cathedral, which dates back to the 11th century.

The next day was another travel and tourism day, passing through fairly tight border security once again, to Ljubljana, Slovenia, where the choir performed its final concert of the tour in the Ursuline Church of the Holy Trinity.

The group had a farewell dinner in Trieste, Italy before leaving for home from Venice on May 20.

“(The trip) was great. We had a lot of time to ourselves to tour,” said Martin, who described the varying landscape, from rugged, snow-capped mountains to beautiful Mediterranean coastline.

“It’s sort of the forgotten coast,” she said. “I think it’s a place most people don’t think of as beautiful. I was very surprised how beautiful it was.”

Temperatures were in the mid-70s most of the trip, too, according to Anderson, with only a few days of rain.

There was also a rich variety of food during the tour, taking both influences from Greek food to the south and Italian food to the west. They enjoyed roasted meats and vegetables, fish, such as sea bass, cherries and strawberries, which were in season, some of the local wines and a wide range of local cuisine … and a lot of gelato.

“There were gelato shops – everywhere,” said Jarvi. “I probably ate about three scoops a day throughout the tour.”

All participants on the trip had to pay their own way, but some scholarships and tuition money through the class on the former Yugoslavia helped subsidize the tour for some of the students. The choir prepared much of the music for the trip in the fall semester, with some additional practices during the spring.

“Even though we were in places that had very recent and very bloody conflicts, this trip reinforced my hope for humanity,” Anderson said. “… No matter what backgrounds people were from, no matter what religions they were, no matter what ethnicity they were, we were able to share not just a common love of music, but also a common love for humanity. We all live in this same small world, and we’re all interconnected.”

The choir, previously under the leadership of Milton Olsson, has taken trips to Mexico City, Central Europe, Eastern Europe, Brazil and China, and Anderson said the group will likely travel again in three to four years.

People interested in joining the choir once it starts up again during the school year can email Anderson at