Bi-college Chamber Singers travel to Puerto Rico

The Chamber Singers of Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges, directed by professor Thomas Lloyd, recently returned from a concert tour to Puerto Rico during the week of May 15-20, 2006. In accord with the focus of past Chamber Singers tours on cultural exchange and community service, the journey included shared concerts with two Puerto Rican college choirs and as well a visit to one of the island’s oldest nursing home facilities. Photos of the tour can be viewed at

Photos of the tour

The 29 student singers left campus in the pouring rain early on the morning of May 15, arriving in Puerto Rico four hours later to the hottest May temperatures on record, with the thermometer rarely dipping below 90. The political temperature in Puerto Rico had been even warmer just the week before until a two-week shut-down of government offices and public schools was resolved.

The Chamber Singers' first collaboration began that same afternoon, when they rehearsed with the choir of the Coro Universidad Interamericana in San Juan. The rehearsal and performance later that evening included not only the two choirs, but the university’s jazz ensemble, who accompanied the combined choirs in a bristling merengue that got both the audience and singers in motion. The university prepared a special dinner for the visiting American students and their hosts complete with a whole range of Puerto Rican specialties. CUI choral director Angel Mattos conducted the combined choirs in two of his arrangements of traditional Puerto Rican songs, while Haverford director Thomas Lloyd conducted the choirs in an arrangement of the spiritual Swing low, sweet chariot. The vocal enthusiasm of the large audience in the Teatro Universidad that evening gave the exhausted Haverford and Bryn Mawr students a rousing start to their tour.

After taking some time the next day to enjoy the beautiful white sand an blue waters of the Isla Verde beach and the historic cobblestone streets of Old San Juan, and a night-time kayaking excursion to view the bio-luminescent plankton of the Laguna Grande in Fajardo, the students took a bus trip over the mountains in the center of the island to the historic city of Ponce on the southern coast. Among many other historic distinctions, Ponce was the home of the 19th Century composer Juan Morel Campos, the recognized founder of the national musical genre called “Danza.”

The Chamber Singers performed one of the most familiar danzas, Felices Días (“happy days”) with the choir of the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico under its director Rubén Colón Tarrats. The Haverford / Bryn Mawr students spent a leisurely afternoon on the PCU campus in rehearsals, lunch, and informal tours of the Old City with students from the Ponce choir. One subject that came up in both group and individual conversations was the recent shutdown of the Puerto Rican government, resulting in the closing of schools for half a million students for two weeks and the layoffs of 90,000 workers, a situation that was resolved just days before the students arrived.

The setting for the evening concert in Ponce was truly memorable. The university arranged for the use of one of the main galleries of the Museo de Arte de Ponce, a museum in a room with an outstanding collection of English painting from the Victorian period. It happened that two of the paintings related directly to two English partsongs from the same period in the Chamber Singers’ program. The room was filled to capacity with an audience of about 120. The beauty of the room and the warmth of the audience inspired the Chamber Singers to give one of their most engaging performances of the tour. In addition to singing Felices Días and the spiritual Ride the Chariot together, when the Haverford/Bryn Mawr students saw that the PCUPR choir was performing the Biebl Ave Maria from their repertoire the previous year, Prof. Tarrats invited them to join them in their performance. And soon after the choirs filed out at the end of the concert, they discovered that they shared another song in common, the spiritual Ezekiel saw de wheel, which they then spontaneously began in singing, with no need of a conductor, as the audience filing out enjoyed their enthusiasm.

The next day’s concert was at the Colegio San Ignacio de Loyola, in the Rio Piedras suburb of San Juan. This was the high school of Haverford sophomore Chamber Singer Tommy Bryan, who played the major role in arranging the concerts in his homeland. Reflecting on his experience afterward, Tommy wrote “I mainly wanted to share Puerto Rico’s beauty, history and how it is a land of great contrast. San Juan, the oldest city under the American flag is a buzzing beach-side metropolis in the Caribbean, with all the hustle and bustle as any city in the mainland. Yet, it is not far from natural wonders like the Bioluminescent Bay in Fajardo, the mountains on the way to Ponce or the El Yunque Rainforest. We can also see contrasts in the culture, a constant mixture of Spanish, African, Taíno and American. This contrast was ever-present, but we definitely got an interesting taste as we prepared to depart at the airport when a “Plena” group, playing African rhythms and in traditional Spanish costumes, decided to perform at a modern airport, right in front of the American Airlines counters. We got to see places such as Bacardí or Plaza las Américas, which represent modern-day business and globalization and how these sit side by side the ancient walls of Old San Juan or the traditional warmth of the Puerto Rican people that we experience at the Asilo de la Providencia. Still, beyond seeing the many greats of Puerto Rico, the group was able to become familiar with many of its challenges: the deep identity and political divisions that have come as a result of our poorly-defined political status, the recent financial crisis, the high proportion of poverty when compared to the US and others.”

Going “solo” (ie, without a collaborating choir) for this concert at the Colegio and the two final performances the next day in Old San Juan, the Chamber Singers were now ready (with a little extra rehearsal) to sing three of their new Puerto Rican songs on their own. As on past Chamber Singers tours, the smiles at the beginning and whoops and hollers at the end that come from an audience hearing an American choir singing one of “their songs” were highlights of the students’ experience.

Haverford freshman Tharrison Boykin later reflected, “The president of San Ignacio School talked to the audience about music transcending language barriers and how it didn’t matter that most of us could not speak each other’s language because we understood the message in the songs. This statement is cliché, but I feel that I truly applied in this case. There was a woman sitting in front of me during a performance who spoke only Spanish, but cried during one of our English songs, and a few of us almost cried because of her. It was a powerful experience. I don’t think we’re all used to making people cry.”

Singing the merengue Compadre Pedro Juan at the historic Asilo de La Providencia in old San Juan the next morning inspired a couple of the elderly residents to get up on their feet and start dancing in front of the choir. This helped energize the students as they sang in an open interior courtyard for the residents and staff with multiple electric fans whirring away in the 95+ degree heat.

Bryn Mawr sophomore Natalee Smith recalled, “My most memorable and meaningful moment on this trip was when we were able to sing for the elderly in a home in San Juan. To be able to see their faces light up when we began singing traditional Puerto Rican songs was so very rewarding…Many residents so loved our being there to share in conversation. For me this was the best part of our tour: being able to serve and entertain others.”

Also connecting to past Chamber Singers tours, the biggest “hit” of their concerts, even aside from the response to Puerto Rican songs and to the spirituals, was to an unpublished piece brought back from the Chamber Singers’ last tour, to Poland in 2005 under the sponsorship of the Haverford Center for Peace and Global Citizenship. Zbojnicki, a virtuosic folk-dance arrangement got an immediate response in a place where dance also permeates the culture.

The Chamber Singers’ final performance was in the Iglesia San Francisco, a historic church in Old San Juan founded in 1639. The choir sang two pieces from the choir loft during noon mass, the Jean Berger anthem How beautiful upon the mountains conducted by Haverford junior Kate Chiappinelli, and the serene motet O Sacrum Convivium by Olivier Messiaen. The warm natural acoustics of the ancient church and another enthusiastic audience kept the students “alive” while singing their 3rd performance in less than twenty-four hours.

Thanks to Tommy Bryan’s family, the traditional end-of-tour banquet was held at the home of one of his relatives rather than in a restaurant. The relaxed environment of a residential backyard with a pool gave the students all they needed to unwind and savor the full week now behind them, including one last rousing chorus of En mi Viejo San Juan and Zbojnicki in thanks to our gracious hosts.

Some additional student reflections:

Haverford junior Charles Collett wrote,“I was fascinated to see various different sides of Puerto Rico, from the parts we were shown on our official tours to the less touristy parts discovered by personal exploration. From seeing the non-tourist areas, it was immediately evident that Puerto Rico is going through tough times, times that are talked about on the news, and discussed some during our sanctioned contact with Puerto Rican students, but that were not anywhere as evident as when we walked one block from the main square of Ponce and found ourselves in the slums.”

A conversation between one Puerto Rican student with Bryn Mawr junior Elizabeth Shaw shed light on the recent tension between Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism there. “I spoke with one girl…who told me about her conversion to Lutheranism, but added that ‘I haven’t told my family yet’ with a look of dread. On the other side, there was the nursing home run by an order of nuns, the awesome Franciscan church, and the Jesuit high school. I enjoyed hearing the parents’ view on single-sex education, and the students’ view on the divided faculty and sports facilities. Finally, I was delighted to encounter store after store of religious knick-knacks – popular attestations to faith and serenity.”

Note: This tour was sponsored in part by a grant from the Louis Green Fund for Faculty/Student Research.