PBCC Tour 2019 – Italy

Emails from Jeff

The Philadelphia Boys Choir & Chorale tour this summer was to Southern Italy.  94 boys and 20 men represented Philadelphia as America’s Ambassadors of Song in Italy from July 19 through August 1.  As in the past, boys still do not communicate directly with their families at home but with technology allows parents to receive periodic email updates from artistic director, Jeff Smith.  We thought you would enjoy “traveling” along vicariously with some highlights from his emails sent from across the world.

UPDATE #1

A great day, but a rocky start!

I guess it wouldn’t be a true PBCC tour without a hiccup or two on the first day…and this tour is no exception! All seemed to go well with the first group arriving at the building around 11am. The boys were ready to go, the parents weren’t as ready, but in good spirits, there was a camera woman from CBS3, everyone showed up on time.

But when we began check-in at JFK airport, we were told that about half of the people didn’t have plane tickets! They found their record in the system, but couldn’t find the ticket. After some confusion, phone calls, and lots of people having no success helping, we finally found one supervisor who was able to fix the tickets….individually. She was the only one that could fix each one. So, as you can imagine, the check-in took MUCH longer than it should have. In the meantime, we discovered that some of the tickets seemed to only be for the first leg – JFK to Munich – but not Munich to Catania. So we needed to resolve that as well. When all was said and done, we had 5 more people to check-in, and boarding was about to begin (hadn’t even gone through security), and the supervisor tells us that these last 5 will not be able to get on the plane. After some more confusion and arguing this time, she throws her hands in the air and walks away. Another attendance finally explained the reason they won’t get on – THERE WEREN’T ANY MORE SEATS LEFT!

At that point, there’s no sense in arguing, as frustrated as we all were. So one chaperone and four boys were found a later flight (and by the way, they weren’t four boys in that chaperone’s group, but rather four random boys), while the rest of us departed on Lufthansa.

That was the start of the day. There were other VERY frustrating hurdles after that, but I won’t bore you with more details, and most of the boys weren’t even aware of them anyway. Group 2 was off to a better start but they had one serious hiccup too.

Through it all, in true PBCC fashion, the boys were either blissfully unaware, or just let it roll off their back and enjoyed each other’s company while everything was being worked out. One of many things that makes me proud of this choir is how they trust us and know it will all work out. When there are problems, I’m always happy that the boys just assume we will take care of them and they have nothing to worry about.

So, group 1 arrived first and headed to a shopping mall for a great Italian lunch – American fast food! I’m only partially kidding – we stopped at a shopping mall, because it was the most convenient location to accommodate 90 people for lunch, on the way to the beach. The mall did contain many fast food chains, but there were a few Italian fast food joints that some of the boys delved into.

And then, onto the beach for group 1. We had about an hour to enjoy there. But first, we ran into a group of young girls who were charmed by these American boys, and I think, excited to practice their English. I caught some of it on video – check it on the PHOTOS page. The beach was quite different than I’ve seen before – you should see those photos. The boys had a great time, and I’m happy to say that their sunscreen lasted well…no sunburn this time!

We continued to dinner (this time, an actual ITALIAN meal), as group 2 arrived at the hotel. Then we finally got to become one group again back at the hotel. Even though it was only a day apart, it’s always fun when the two groups finally meet up after a day of travel – there’s a camaraderie and brotherhood amongst us, for sure. We had our first birthday on the first full day of tour – Caden Ellis. So we all sang to him and he got the traditional little dessert and candy (which is a treat because of our usual no-candy policy on tour).

And now it’s off to bed. And boy, are we beat! Many of them didn’t sleep much on the plane, which is a good thing, because they are exhausted right now, which means they should sleep the whole night and be adjusted to the time change already when they wake up in the morning. We always exhaust them the first day, but it pays when they are raring to go on day 2!

Looking forward to what’s ahead! I’ll write again in a few days… Jeff

UPDATE #2

Well I’m happy to tell you that it’s been a great two days! We started with a short drive to Mount Etna, the second most active volcano in the world. We couldn’t have asked for better weather; though it was a little hot, there was a nice breeze, and more importantly, the skies were totally clear so we had great views. And on top of it all, “Mama Etna” was smoking that day.

We went about half-way to the top of the mountain, where we could see the various craters and we got to walk right in them. And of course, up that high, there was a spectacular view of the whole region. It was stunning. Check out the photos…

From there, we had a 1.5 hour drive to Taormina. Since the boys didn’t get enough sleep the night before, we used the drive to get a good hour nap. The boys were great about getting to sleep right away – I asked them if they were tired (It was around 11am), about 3 of them raised their hand. I said “exactly….most of your aren’t tired right…..but this is our only chance to sleep, and if you don’t, when the concert starts at 8:30pm, you will not have any energy, and not be able to give a good first performance of this tour”. They got the point, and didn’t fuss a bit. We closed the bus curtains, and they were out.

Taormina was gorgeous. I wish we had more time to spend in Taormina – it really is a beautiful little town. I made sure to get some Granita while we were there; Taormina is particularly known for their Granita, a dessert similar to what we think of as water ice, but with fresh fruit and fruit juice, not corn syrup – Delicious!

When we arrived at the venue, we had time to rehearse and prepare for the concert. It was a beautiful church with a long reverb. Though it sounded beautiful, the reverb did muddy things a bit much, so we had to slow down some of our fast songs. But it gave the boys and men something to really concentrate on, instead of just going on “auto-pilot”, as we like to say. When you’ve sung a song many times, it’s easy to just let your mind go elsewhere, while your body sings the music. In this case, they couldn’t let their mind wander, because then they would start to just sing too fast and not stay in the slower tempos. I had to give them a warning about this, and I was so impressed on how they pulled it off in the concert! Down to every phrase, they were focused, “felt the groove”, and were careful not to ever let the song get away from them.

During the rehearsal, we had a chance to run through the new Italian pieces, do sound check for the soloists on the mics, and a few other things. We walked to a restaurant for dinner, and had another big meal. Most of our meals, they serve us a plate of pasta and we think the meal’s done, but NO…..they come back and bring out an entrée afterwards! And of course, dessert. Good food, for sure! And the places have been great about handling food allergies. They were well-prepared and made sure they knew exactly which boys needed which kind of meal. When you’re serving a table of four, it’s not too difficult to remember which person asked for a meal with no nuts. But when you have 117 people, it gets a bit trickier knowing which 10 boys have nut allergies, which three are vegetarians, which three don’t eat pork, which six are lactose intolerant, which four have shellfish allergies, and which nine have other various food restrictions or allergies. With our little cards sitting out next to the boys, it certainly makes it easier, but still, the servers have to remember which part of the room they go to for each of these restrictions.

We celebrated another birthday at the end of dinner – Gabriel Beckett. Of course, we sang Happy Birthday as he blew out the candle. This year I decided just to bring my own candles and lighter – it’s sometimes hard finding them at the last minute on tour. And this year, we have nine birthdays on tour! Sorry, but it’s only ONE candle for each….

We returned to the church for the performance. It was a small venue – seated maybe 200, but it was packed. And hot. And humid. I knew the boys would need a good pep talk to get through it. We usually have kids walking off on practically every concert, because the tours get so hot, and they’re not used to it. The church had no air conditioning, but they had a few small fans blowing.. I didn’t tell the boys, but it certainly wasn’t the hottest concert we’ve done. I don’t know, maybe close to 90 degrees? Being in the full uniform and with all the people packed in, it definitely felt hot and humid. Shortly before the performance, I had to go into the sanctuary with the audience and do a brief TV interview, and by the time I got back to the choir to give my pep talk, my clothes were already completely soaked. So, that became my pep talk: it’s so hot, that we’re already covered in sweat, but that means our bodies are working – sweating to cool us off. We’re not sick, nothing bad is going to happen, we’re just hot and uncomfortable. Rather than go out and focus on that, let’s just accept it and focus on giving a great performance. This is our first concert on tour, and if any boy walks off, that tells us he’s going to have a lousy tour. This is a hot concert, but there will be hotter ones than this, and some cooler ones as well. Let’s prove we can get through this and do well on tour. And they did! Not one boy walked off, and they were focused on the music throughout! I was so proud of them.

It was a small venue, but it was packed. We sang for a little over an hour – and the audience enjoyed every piece. We started with America, then Philadelphia, USA, then a few Americana pieces, including Old MacDonald complete with pictures of animals (since they might not understand English…..even our animal “sounds” are sometimes different in different languages). We continued with some sacred pieces – Ave Maria, Ubi Caritas (they LOVED) and one of the Italian pieces we learned, Signore delle cime. Next were two pop songs – Bohemian Rhapsody and Circle of Life (again, they LOVED there). We concluded with Holy (sung in Italian) – with audience members in tears – and then the beloved Italian hymn, Va Pensiero. The choir sounded amazing, the audience was so enthusiastic, it was the perfect start of tour. The boys were very proud, I was proud – it was great!

July 22 – Agrigento, Mazara del Vallo

Another late night, another early morning. I’m disappointed that some last-minute changes in our itinerary have resulted in the boys not being able to get a good 9 hours of sleep each night. In fact, almost every night is less than that. Fortunately, we have bus rides each day, and we’re able to use that time to get a good nap.

After another delicious breakfast (oh, the fresh fruit!!!), we headed to Agrigento, the 3rd largest archaeological site in the Mediterranean, after Athens and Rome. The Greeks were in Sicily years ago, so this site consisted of Greek temples – much of it reminiscent of the Parthenon in Athens. And like most of the sites, the view from the mountain was stunning. The visit concluded with a pizza lunch – pizza made in wood fire ovens. Delicious! And the bruschetta with fresh tomatoes…..SO good!

We continued onto Mazara del Vallo, on the south-western coast of Sicily. I forgot to mention our rest stop during the morning drive. Often on these tours, when we need to make a bathroom stop, there’s a snack food shop attached. And since you need quite a bit of time for so many people to use the bathroom, it would be difficult not to let the boys pick up a snack. But can you imagine 117 people stopping in a snack shop? Certainly, not all of them did, but they had quite a line at the cashier. When time was up – time to get back on the bus – at least 20 kids had to get out of line and put the food back, so they could get on the bus. You should have seen the happy faces of the people who were in line behind them, when they all got out of line! The boys handled it well – no grumbling or complaints….they knew there was a chance they wouldn’t get to the front of the line in time. It’s a good bunch of kids….

So, we took another nap on our ride, and arrived at the hotel. After check-in and about 30 minutes to get washed up and in uniform, we headed to the church. In the cloister area, we had a wonderful meal prepared by some of the staff and volunteers of the church. Pasta, sausages, a fabulous rice and vegetable mixture, and my favorite was the dessert – a melon (similar to honeydew) with lemon juice, sugar and mint. It was so refreshing.

After rehearsal, we had a joint rehearsal with the local university choir. Together, we sang Signore delle cime and When the Saints Go Marching In. I was impressed with how well their choir sang the English at such a fast speed. And I was told they just learned the music on their own, individually – they had no rehearsal together because school is out for the summer.

And the choir gave another great concert. Beautiful acoustics – long reverb, but this time not too muddy….we were able to perform at our normal tempi, but have the beautiful reverb to blend the sound. The place probably held 600 or so, and it was standing room only. Again, they loved every song, and a standing ovation at the end. We sent boys out to the audience after the concert, to greet, shake hands and take photos with people. Lots of people came up to me and said “complimenti” and “bravi” and “grazie”. They are a warm people.

July 23 – Monreale Cathedral, Agriturismo, Palermo Ferry

OK, I’m getting behind on my notes and starting to forget things. The days are all blending together. The lack of sleep isn’t helping….

When we first stopped to visit the cathedral, outside there were some souvenir and snack stands (just like any other touristy area). As we were putting on some sunscreen, I decided to buy some juice slushy thing. I’m a sucker for fresh juice. This was a mix of lemon slush (Granita, I suppose), Mulberry slush, fresh squeezed orange juice, and I think maybe some pomegranate juice – absolutely amazing, and totally refreshing. The lady who sold it was happy to have my business, I’m sure, because I then told everyone else about it and they all bought some….

The cathedral was stunning. The architecture and style was actually a mix of Greek and Roman. Usually, choirs who tour the cathedral don’t get to sing while they’re there – our tour company had previously asked them, and were turned down. But the priest from the church at our concert the prior night had contacted the priest here and told them how great we were, so they let us sing! We sang “Ubi Caritas” and “All Creatures of Our God and King” (by the way, this was one of the new songs we learned just for tour).

The next stop was Case Varisco, an agriturismo. An agriturismo is basically a bed and breakfast, or even a very small hotel, which is owned and operated by farmers. So there is always lots of land around, farming equipment, animals, and other things that guests can observe during their stay. We were just there for lunch, but what a lunch! Now I’m not much of a foodie, but it seems like these e-mails have ended up including TMI about food. I think you would too, though, if you had these meals! This one started with appetizers of all kinds: meats, cheeses, arancini, chicken, vegetables. Then a pasta dish, then a meat entrée, then dessert. I can’t even remember the specifics; I just know all of the chaperones especially were raving about it! I DO remember the dessert – cannoli. Wow….I’m not a huge fan of cannoli, but there were so delicious – sweet and creamy!

It’s a shame we didn’t have a chance to really explore the grounds, because the meal took a while and we had to head to Palermo to catch the ferry. Before leaving, we celebrated Evan Schaffer’s birthday. The agriturismo family made him a little dessert and gave him a t-shirt of the place! We all sang, and he got the traditional candy treat….

On to Palermo for very quick shopping, and boarding the ferry. As expected, we waited around quite a bit before boarding. Like the tour motto says “Hurry up and wait!” But again, no complaints from anyone about it, fortunately. Once we boarded (around 8:30pm or so), it was already getting late, so the boys were told to get their dinner, then go to bed because the next morning would be very early. Dinner for most of the boys was cafeteria style…..and quality. But the prices were closer to upscale. Needless to say, it was a disappointment. Some of the boys were careful to come up with ways to save money on the dinner, though….

Several of the boys found some crepe desserts on another deck, while others were outside looking at the stars. It was a beautiful night. But we had to get to bed because the following morning we had to be off the ship around 6:30am. I know some boys get up very early for school, but I’m usually not up until 7pm or so each morning to get my boys moving for school. Well, this particular morning most of the boys were up by 4:30am, so they could get breakfast at 5:30, and out of their rooms by 6:30pm. Because of the early morning, though, many of the boys caught the sunrise – what a site. Earlier today, one of the boys said “it seems like everywhere we go on this tour, we say ‘Wow! What a great view’”, and it’s true. Not only are the sites great, but when you look around you, all you can see is beautiful land.

Once we arrived in Naples, we went straight to Pompeii. I’d seen pictures before, but when you walk through this excavated city, it’s quite remarkable. At the time it got covered in lava by Mt. Vesuvius, it was the second largest city in Italy (Rome was the largest). The boys enjoyed the site, but it was very hot, and some of the guides were a little verbose. But we got great pictures and learned some interesting facts about Pompeii.

Then we had a pizza lunch back in Naples – because, it’s Naples and you have to have pizza in Naples! And now we all tasted exactly why they said that. For me, it’s all about the dough….SO good! We headed into town for a tour of the Bourbon Tunnels. It was pretty interesting, concluding with a little raft ride.

I’m about to fall asleep, so I’m ending it here. The boys should be in bed now sleeping, and I hope to be soon too!

You should be proud of your boys – they’re doing well!

Jeff

UPDATE #2.5

When in Rome…

Jeff’s computer is down, so he can’t send any more updates or photos. However, the chaperones are uploading pictures, so check that out.

From Jeff: “We had a wonderful time in Palmoli…an experience we’ll remember for a lifetime. And Dr. Hamilton called a few weeks ago to arrange a surprise visit, so we were all happy to see him with choir family yesterday. Looking forward to some Rome sightseeing today, and a great concert tonight! I’ll write some updates when I get home, just to fill in some details that the boys might not remember.”

POST TOUR: UPDATE #3

Thursday, July 25 – Sorrento, Amalfi Coast, Naples, San Salvo

I have a feeling this will be a long update….we’ve done a lot in the past few days!

On Thursday morning, we departed for Sorrento, where we just had an hour or so to walk around the town, shop, and get some gelato, of course. Following that, we drove along the Amalfi Coast, incredibly winding roads along the mountain with a gorgeous view of the sea. The bus drivers showed their skills that day. In fact, drivers have to get a special license to be permitted to drive along the coast, because it is so difficult. Once in Amalfi, we had another hour or so to walk through the town and grab some lunch. I took the chance to get a fresh lemonade, since this area is especially known for the lemons. On average, it seems their lemons are about three times the size of the ones we get back home. They also have an unusual lemon fruit about the size of a cantaloupe, called Cedro Citron; but I didn’t have a chance to try any of them.

We headed back to Naples to rehearse for the Naples Festival at Castel Nuovo. Shortly before tour, we found out we would not be participating in the Ravello Festival – this year they only featured Italian groups: Italian symphony orchestras, and young musicians from the Italian conservatories (mostly orchestras and chamber groups). So, Naples was happy to include us in their own festival. However, they obviously did not promote it very well. There were maybe 50 people in the audience. The production aspects were great – they rented a nice baby grand, they had a complete stage setup with lighting trusses and a great sound system. Everything we needed they had….except an audience!

When we arrived to rehearse, it was still quite hot and the sun was burning right on the stage. So we rehearsed off stage for a little until the sun moved off of the stage. There were lots of logistics to work out with staging of some of the songs, and the mic’ing of the choir and soloists, and time was limited. However, we got through everything we needed, though abbreviated.

We walked to dinner at a nearby restaurant, then back to the venue to change into uniform. It was another hot one. But they pulled it off. I reminded them that no matter how many people were there, the audience that came wants to hear a fantastic performance, and we want to represent ourselves and our country in the best way we can. And they had been doing so great so far. I’m particularly impressed with how they’re handling the heat. I don’t think we had any boys walk off in concert, except for one or two that were legitimately sick (vomiting) or had diarrhea. Fortunately, any boy that got sick has been sick for just a day or two at most. And there haven’t been many. So, they pulled off another excellent performance, despite the lack of audience. At some point (I can’t remember if it was before or after the concert) a wedding party passed through the courtyard, and as they were coming, the best man asked us to cheer for them. It was random, but funny – we just gave them a big cheer, and they took some photos. I know some of you saw the photos already. We didn’t sing or anything, but it was fun – the happy couple can share these wedding photos to their friends – “Here’s one with us and a bunch of Americans we don’t know”. After the concert, we headed back to the hotel. By the way, this was a great hotel – it used to be some kind of administration building during the fascist era. Beautiful building, great rooms and food.

Friday, July 26 – San Salvo

So, today we headed across the country to the eastern coast – San Salvo. This began the portion of tour that was not arranged by our tour company, but by our contacts in Palmoli.

We arrived at a school in San Salvo, greeted by our host, Maria Aurelia. Maria was so warm and friendly, but she didn’t speak English, so she had a few students on hand to help with translation. It took us a while to get plans straight for the rest of the day, so the boys had some free time playing on the school grounds….frisbee, football, cards. Lunch arrived and we dug right in. We then had to drop all of our concert gear at the performance venue. The venue was some kind of small sports arena. It was circular with a dome, and bleachers on opposite sides. The acoustics were odd, but not terrible. Basically, if you stood under the dome, there was a strange echo. For the rest of the room, it was fairly dry. After dumping our stuff, we changed into our bathing suits and walked to the beach.

I’m not much of a beach person, but I know the boys always have a great time, so we try to schedule one or two days at a beach during each tour. Watching 90 boys in the water isn’t always easy – they want to chicken-fight, dunk others under water, etc – so we try our best to limit what they’re allowed to do, to prevent any problems. It’s a balance that I hate trying to maintain, and I imagine a lot of parents do too: allowing them to have fun, but also keeping them safe – where do you draw the line?

After the beach, we walked back to the venue for a quick rinse in the showers. There were 4 showers for 120 of us – so it was “jump in to rinse for 20 seconds, then OUT!” It wasn’t too bad, but it did make quite a mess of the floor in that bathroom. And then, nap time. I admit that I’m quite proud that I can get 90 boys to lay down and sleep within a matter of minutes! I usually give them a quick talk – “you might not be tired now, but it’s our only chance to rest and you’ve been playing hard today….you’ll be dead tired for the concert tonight unless you rest”. Our host, Maria, was impressed – she took some photos (as did I) of all the boys laying on the floor, and then used her google translate to ask me “What magic do you do to get them to sleep?” Ha!

Some pizza, snacks and drinks arrived at the end of the nap, so we finished that up, got dressed for the concert, and cleaned up the venue for the performance. As I mentioned, it was a fairly small performance venue – I think they had about 100 chairs set up. It was pretty full of people, but that was only about 100….

The choir did well, and the audience was so appreciative – tons of applause. They particularly loved “Walking to School”. That one is always an audience favorite. They also enjoyed “Old MacDonald”. Apparently, they sing the same song there (in Italian, of course); but I wasn’t aware of that, so we added some posters with pictures of animals for the boys to hold up. You might recall there was a little joke in the song – instead of the duck quack at the end, he says “Afflac!” I assume Italians don’t have the same commercial – and Afflac probably doesn’t operate in Italy, so we changed it to be the Donald Duck voice instead. I was told Italians all know Donald Duck (I think they call him “Paperino”). Unfortunately, the bit never really landed…nobody laughed or anything. Nonetheless, the audiences always seemed to enjoy the song quite a bit.

At the end of the concert, the mayor of San Salvo and some of her staff greeted us with some gifts and a short photo-op. It was a great night, though hot again. We loaded up the buses to head to Palmoli. This was a trying experience. Every five minutes, plans changed on how we were getting there. We were supposed to have three buses, but only two were reserved. So they had several people in cars to drive whatever people didn’t fit on the two buses. Then they wanted to group people on buses based on where their Palmoli homestays live, so they can do one drop off point for them together. Then, that plan was changed. There were other changes too – I can’t remember them all. When all was said and done, we did not arrive to Palmoli until around 1:30am or so. And then we had to match the boys with their homestays when we arrived, which wouldn’t have been too tricky (we have a system for this….) except that most of the homestays weren’t there to pick up the boys. Our hosts didn’t want the homestays to have to go into town so late, so again they had drivers meet at the central point in Palmoli to take each group to the homestays. This took probably another hour. Needless to say, it was a LATE night. I was very frustrated, and though I didn’t hear any complaints, I’m sure the boys and men were frustrated too. It was not a good start to our time in Palmoli.

But things turned around the next day….

POST TOUR: UPDATE #4

Saturday and Sunday – July 27th and 28th.

Well, it was a late, long night (3am??) when we first arrived in Palmoli, and we were all looking forward to a free day on Saturday to enjoy the big festival, but mostly to sleep in!

But alas, I was happily greeted at 8:00am by a marching band. Yes, a marching band. Right outside our housing facilities, a band was warming up and getting ready to play in their parade. All of the chaperones and staff were housed together in some sort of large facility with cots. I don’t know how they all slept through it, but it certainly woke ME up! Not one to miss an interesting cultural experience, I got out of my pajamas, threw some jeans on and went outside to check it out. It was a group of about 15 or 20 musicians in uniform. I seem to recall Mary telling me they were brought in for this event – not a local group. Shortly after I arrived, they started marching up one of the narrow streets of Palmoli, playing one of their spirited marches, and they were out of view. But I was already awake at that point, so no sense in going back to bed.

Some other chaperones eventually got up and joined me outside, and eventually the parade started. The festival is centered around some religious holiday, so besides your usual parade stuff, there were some people carrying small religious statues and other related items. But, to my surprise, as one of the vehicles swung around the corner, we saw some PBCC boys in the parade! Apparently, several of the families involved in the parade decided to have our boys join them. They were passing out candy and food, smiling and waving.

After the parade, several boys and their families hung out in the park, playing games and eating food. I enjoyed the brief chance to meet some relatives I’d never met before. At one point we all gathered to take a brief tour of their castle. Mind you, this wasn’t some huge medieval castle you see in movies, but it was the same idea on a MUCH smaller scale. Inside the castle, the rooms were set like a museum – furniture and items restored, with explanations. We had some guides show us through briefly as we headed towards the bastion. (I don’t know if that’s the right word….I just looked it up online – basically, it’s the top of the castle where you can look out around the land). As is the case with most of Italy – when you’re high up, you get a beautiful view of the beautiful country! So we enjoyed the view and the breeze, and headed back down for the procession.

The procession was an interesting experience. Lots of people line up double-file, with some of the priests in the center, carrying statues and chanting. It starts at the top of the hill – by the castle – and ends at the bottom of the town, by one of the two churches (though my understanding is that this one is not used as a church anymore). Lots of people line up for this procession. In fact, I would even say the whole town is in it, except that there were other people watching the procession too. We were asked to participate as well, so the 120 of us lined up and followed along. As the procession began, no one talked – it was silent. Just walking. And walking. And walking. The priests would chant, or say some prayers in Italian, and the people in the procession and the spectators would respond. I assume these were just the typical call and responses from the Roman Catholic Mass. I’m not Catholic, nor do I speak fluent Italian, so I couldn’t tell you for sure….but I did hear some religious words I recognized (“Maria”, “Dio”, “Santo”, etc). After several blocks, it appeared we were through the town (did I mention, it’s a small town?); we continued down a winding road for about a mile. Every once in a while, we would hear some thunderous booms – fireworks. And that was interrupted occasionally by the band again, playing march tunes. As they played their marches – which was a little bizarre in its own right, considering the solemnity and silence of the whole thing – I was quite amused when started playing the USA’s own national march, Stars and Stripes Forever! As we reached the end, everyone was gathered outside this church, and we were asked to sing a selection on the steps outside the church. We treated them with “All Creatures of Our God and King”, and the audience was delighted – a great teaser to get them to the concert the following night! At that point, most of the people got a ride back up to their homes. But with 120 of us….not so easy to get rides….so we had to walk back….uphill. No complaints though – it was a unique experience!

Back at the top, we briefly celebrated Dellis’ 18th birthday, then met up with our homestays, resolved a few homestay issues (some of which I’m sure your boys told you), and went to bed. There was a rock concert held near the castle, and I believe some families and boys stayed for some of that too. The next morning, we took the buses to Vasto, a nearby coastal city. We were given a brief city tour, and a chance to explore a little, before visiting their municipal building. One of the vice mayors greeted us, we sang for him, and headed back to Palmoli.

We had a quick rehearsal in the church to prepare for the concert, and then lined up outside to start. There was no place in the church to line up. And frankly, there was no place outside either! These were very narrow cobblestone paths….trying to fit 6 rows of singers was nearly impossible. It was a fun challenge though, and they all handled it well, as the audience tried to pass by to get into the church. When it was time to begin, we were overwhelmed by the audience. The church probably seats about 100 people, but people were packed in EVERYWHERE. They left the center aisle clear for us to walk down, but the rest of the church was crammed. There’s a great shot online – you can’t see the whole church and all the people, but you can see how people were standing in every possible nook they could find.

And they loved the concert. Every song was met with applause and cheers and smiling faces. And sometimes tears too. It was an emotional experience. In fact, after the concert, as we presented our traditional miniature Liberty Bell to the mayor, he had a few surprises for us. First, he presented us with some memorabilia, including a flag of the city. Secondly, he had a plaque made for Dellis. As I mentioned, we celebrated Dellis’ 18th birthday the previous night. Apparently, an 18th birthday is a HUGE deal in Italy. They wanted to do something extra special for him, so they had this plaque made and presented it to him. They weren’t aware that two other boys had birthdays that day….but they weren’t turning 18, so I don’t know if it would have mattered anyway. And the mayor also presented me with copies of birth certificates of my great-grandparents that lived in Palmoli, Lodovico and Fiorina Dalo. I was grateful to the choir for sticking around for lots of photos afterwards – with the major, as well as with my parents and relatives. An experience I’ll never forget. And I think the boys will never forget either. I heard many comment that Palmoli was their favorite part of the tour; and others commented that this homestay was the best homestay of all the tours they’d been on. The people were just SO enthusiastic to host us. They were overwhelmed by our performance, by the boys’ manners, by the whole experience.

The boys headed back with their families for dinner and sleep. The chaperones enjoyed a nice seafood dinner together at “the” restaurant – it’s the only restaurant in town!

POST TOUR: UPDATE #5

Final Update

The families in Palmoli were sad to see our boys go. They really had a great time – I heard nothing but great things from the families. Those who were reluctant to homestay our boys are now wishing they did it. Those who did it are hoping we come back again someday. These are the experiences that make tour. I forgot to mention in my last update that after the concert was over, and the audience dispersed, we sang happy birthday to the two other boys who had birthdays that night – Chase Shatzman and Jake Wade. Chase turned 13, and he’s Jewish – so this was a special one for him. We’re glad we could spend the day with him.

Monday, July 29th

We headed to Rome, with a stop for a tour of the Montecassino Abbey. This beautiful, old Abbey housed a magnificent cathedral. We had previously asked permission to sing a song there, but were denied. However, the bishop at our concert in Mazara had contacted the bishop at this Abbey after our Mazara concert and told him he had to hear us sing – so we were happy to sing a very short “concert” for him in the cathedral. As expected, the acoustics were breathtaking – it’s a real treat singing in these huge cathedrals!

We continued onto the Ronald McDonald House in Rome (“Casa Ronald Roma Bellosguardo”). The very first Ronald McDonald House was in Philadelphia, but over the years they have expanded to over 350 houses around the world. If you’re not familiar, it is a charity that provides free housing for children going through medical treatments (such as chemo), as well as housing for their immediate families – as a way to keep the whole family together while the children are going through the difficult treatments. The children’s hospital in Rome has a very good reputation, so there is a Ronald McDonald house there to help those who are in that hospital – especially those who’ve traveled from other countries just to get into that children’s hospital. When we arrived, we quickly set ourselves up just outside the facility. There were only a few families there to hear us, but I know they appreciated the performance. We sang all of the upbeat songs that kids might like, plus a few other classics, including America the Beautiful and Holy. The families were touched, and our boys were moved by the experience. We were asked not to take pictures of the kids, for their privacy – especially if they’re not looking well and maybe embarrassed about their appearance. So I don’t think you’ll find any photos of the kids we sang for. But the boys enjoyed it, and got to give away their “outreach” gifts as well as leave a pile of other gifts for the House to give to the kids that weren’t able to come outside for the concert.

Before we sang, though, we had some special visitors! My predecessor, Dr. Hamilton, had arranged a group of friends – Tommy Vokes, Gail Weirauch, Sue and Gordon Rothamel and himself – to hang out with us for a few days in Rome! He and I planned it before tour and kept it a secret from the choir, so it was a nice surprise for the boys, men, and our nurse Cathy (who is especially good friends of theirs) when they showed up at the House. Dr. Hamilton doesn’t come up every year to conduct the choir anymore, so this was a nice opportunity for the newer kids to get to meet him in person. Of course, we took plenty of photos. And it was Cathy’s birthday, too – so it was the perfect surprise for her special day!

Tuesday, July 30th

This morning we got to visit the Vatican – St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. What an amazing tour. St. Peter’s is the largest cathedral in the world, and it’s just overwhelming! The Sistine Chapel on the other hand is quite small in comparison, but of course is known for the beautiful artwork on the ceiling, painted by Michelangelo in the 16th century. It was a bit bizarre visiting there, because the entire place was packed with tourists– everyone standing literally shoulder to shoulder. But in the middle of our visit, a priest came out and reminded everyone that it is a holy place – a chapel – and he asked everyone to remain quiet while he prayed aloud; and then he invited anyone who wished to come see him for a blessing (or maybe it was for prayer requests, I don’t recall).

Afterwards, we had some free time for shopping (you know how these boys love to shop….) and lunch. I saw many boys getting more gelato….(and I might have had some as well….) We headed to the Chiesa di Sant’ Ignazio di Loyola. (By the way, if you’re keeping track of things, or making a scrap book or something, please note that the name of the church in the itinerary was wrong….I wrote “al Campo Marzio”, but it’s “di Loyola”. There was an adult choir there who rehearsed “Signore delle cime” and “When the Saints” with us, and we had our own rehearsal time as well. The choir sounded good, but it was a long morning in the heat, and with lots of walking, so we needed some rest. I couldn’t resist taking pictures again of 90 boys asleep on the floor – quite a feat! Of course, there were two or three who wanted to stay awake…so I usually end up staying nearby to make sure they’re actually trying to sleep….lying down, no books, etc. In the meantime, I had to pick a few boys to do a brief television interview for one of the local Roman channels. I plan on getting some of the clips from TV and facebook a little more organized, so everyone can see them.

The concert that evening went well. And I think the group really got a kick out of seeing Dr. Hamilton in the front row of the audience, tearing up, and enthusiastically cheering us on. It was a good audience, and they really enjoyed the concert. For this one, we were restricted to only sacred music – so no “Walking to School”, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, or our patriotic standards. But it came off well, and they sounded great. Oh, I almost forgot – we had our final birthday of tour today – Ben Favino. We had eight birthdays on this tour….a record, I think!

Wednesday, July 31st

Another long day of hot touring. But these were places you CAN’T miss when visiting Rome – the Colloseum and the Forum. I would say it was even more impressive than I imagined. And hearing the explanations and descriptions of how things were done when they were built just made it that more interesting. I don’t know how much of the guides’ information the boys pick up, but I’m sure they at least get bits and pieces. Some of the information impresses some boys more than others, but usually there’s something in there that will stick with them.

After lunch, we headed back to St. Peter’s Basilica for the mass. Unfortunately, we had to wait in another long line out in the sun. And time was tight – it was getting awfully close to the start of mass and we were still in the security line. However, a former PBCC board member, Jorge Fernandez, had connected with me about our tour and was able to pull a few strings. After we finally found him, he got us in our own security entrance. Time was still tight though – as soon as we got through the line we were rushed to the front of the cathedral to line up – about 5 minutes before the mass began! We got organized quickly, spoke briefly with the organist (he would be accompanying us on Holy and All Things Bright and Beautiful….organ parts I wrote that the choir has never heard before….), and before I knew it, the organist started playing our first song and we had to sing! The choir was very hesitant – they were standing in the pews, so the acoustic situation was far less than ideal; we hadn’t warmed up; they had never heard the organ part before; we were rushed. But they got through it. Each song got stronger, and at the end of the mass, we concluded with “All Creatures of Our God and King”, which was the most powerful, and really sounded beautiful. The congregation gave a rousing round of applause. The staff was gracious to let us take photos by the altar rail when the mass ended. It was a crazy afternoon, but certainly a memorable experience for all of us. We then headed to dinner – our “farewell dinner”, if you will. Food was great, as usual, and this time there was some entertainment during the meal – a lady soprano and an accordion player. They treated us to some famous opera arias and traditional Italian songs, recognizable to any American. One of the chaperones had the idea to ask if they could perform “Va, Pensiero” with us. I don’t recall if I mentioned in an earlier update, but this was one of the Italian songs we learned, and often concluded our concerts with it. It’s beloved by Italians – almost like their second national anthem. The singer and accordionist agreed, so we all enjoyed singing the tune together. They even all started going around the restaurant – like a conga line. I think there was a lot of pent-up energy, and a bit of relief after a long tour…and they let it all out tonight!

Last day!

Well, this was an early day for sure…the Lufthansa group had to leave the hotel around 4 in the morning! They were all given special instructions to not utter a word in the hallways or lobby in the morning, because the rest of the hotel would be sleeping. And they did a great job – the hotel staff even commented later on how impressed they were with how quiet they were – also the night before. Apparently, they’ve had many groups on their last day of tour getting quite rowdy. Well, the group made it to the airport on time, but of course ran into some snags while checking in – Lufthansa really messed up quite a few things on this trip. Their flight and service on the flights was great, but the management on the ground was problematic. We made it onto the flights OK, though.

The Norwegian Airline group had a day at the beach first – I can’t tell you much about that, except that I heard it went well – it was a nice beach and they had a good time.

We all arrived back in the USA, and endured the hardest part of the trip – the bus ride back to Philly. It always feels endless – after a long tour, a long flight, the last thing you want to do is sit on a bus for 2 more hours. Last year was the worst though – I think we clocked from the door of our last hotel to arriving at the choir building was 40 hours! (Three or four hours to the airport in Vietnam, short flight to Singapore, EIGHT hour layover in Singapore….amazing airport though….long flight to the US, two hours back to Philly) And those last two hours on the bus were brutal!

A lot of people volunteered their time to make this a successful tour. So, first, a big thanks to the boys for doing a super job performing and representing our city and our country. Thanks to the chaperones for keeping all the boys in line and happy – I know it’s a lot of work! Thanks to Cathy and Scott for keeping everyone healthy. Thanks to my mom, Mary and Maria for arranging everything in Palmoli and San Salvo. Thanks to the parents that followed our strict instructions about not communicating with us on tour…I certainly appreciate the trust you put in me and the organization to take good care of your boys. I know you know that tour is not exactly a vacation for me and the chaperones; but I can’t tell you how much I really do enjoy it. There are always so many great moments – moments of pride, of joy, of amazement, of discovery, of friendship. Thank you for sharing your boys with us for these special moments! Jeff

Leave a Reply