UO Chamber Choir to sing in Spain at venerable event

Travel and performance make a powerful duet, says Sharon Paul, the UO’s Robert Trotter Chair of Music. As director of the UO’s award-winning chamber choir, she’s seen how international tours resonate with students.

This May, the choir will visit Spain for 10 days, wrapping up their tour with a performance celebrating the 850th anniversary of the Order of Saint James of Compostela. The choir is the only U.S. ensemble invited to the event, which will be held at a World Heritage Site.

The tour will mark the choir’s first international trip since 2019, when it won top honors in Sweden at one of Europe’s most distinguished competitions. Since then, COVID-19 has made it difficult for students to sing in a choir, let alone travel.

When the global pandemic first began, they weren’t allowed to rehearse at all. Then they had to wear masks, stand 12 feet apart, and sing for no longer than 30 minutes at a time.

“We lost this expressive vehicle and found out how important it is to all of us as choral musicians,” Paul said. “We’re all so grateful. I think the students have a new level of appreciation for singing, because we know what it’s like to have it taken away.”

For many of the students, the trip represents their first time traveling outside the U.S. The choir will perform in Madrid, Burgos and Oviedo, and the tour wraps with the main event at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, reputedly home to the remains of Saint James the Great. The Pope and the King of Spain are invited to attend the May 28th celebration.

Since the Middle Ages, a shrine in the cathedral has been the final stop for pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago, a web of ancient routes that culminate at the cathedral in northwest Spain. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from across Europe complete the journey annually, and the most popular route is nearly 500 miles long. The celebration commemorates the order of knights founded in the 12th century to protect the pilgrims.

The choir will perform “Path of Miracles” by British composer Joby Talbot, a work based on the Camino de Santiago. The event will mark the first time the music has ever been performed in the cathedral. Paul says it’s the most difficult piece she’s ever taught, and the choir is taking seven months to rehearse.

“The music is extraordinary on its own,” said Paul. “Singing it in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, a space so deeply connected to the subject of the composition, is special.”

The choir will sing other works during the tour, many with connections to the venues where they’re performed. Singing a centuries-old piece in the cathedral it was written for is a powerful experience, Paul said. Finding such opportunities requires leaving the U.S.

“During international tours, I’ve seen extraordinary exchanges between human beings who would have otherwise never met,” Paul said. “The transformation I see in the students is incredible.”

Each student contributes $1,000 to participate in the trip to Spain. Resources from the Diane and Brad Foley International Travel Fund at the School of Music and Dance will help defray the $100,000 total cost.

However, the choir still has $11,600 to raise. Thanks to a $20,000 challenge gift from the Haugland Family Foundation, every dollar donated before April 30 will be doubled.

Paul hopes the UO community will chip in and help the choir make it to Spain and the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Although the big final performance will forever be a point of pride, her priority is the student experience.

“I make it my mission to get them overseas,” she said. “It makes such a difference. Five years from now, these alumni might not be able to tell you every class they took in the spring of 2022. But they will always have treasured memories from their choir trip to Spain.”

By Ed Dorsch, University Communications