The Chamber Singers
of Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges
Concert Tour to Costa Rica
May 19-26, 2003

Monday, May 19 – travel American Airlines Philadelphia-Miami-San Jose

Tuesday, May 20 – The day began with an early morning trip to Carlos Maria Ulloa Senior Citizens Home in San Jose, the oldest such home in Costa Rica. After a tour of home, residents responded very warmly to our performance in an open auditorium. A TV crew from a San Jose station filmed the choir singing behind a man who had worked at the home for 77 years. Individual students were then interviewed in Spanish for the evening newscasts.

We were then given an afternoon tour of downtown San Jose, including the National Museum (which was the main army barracks until army was abolished in the 1950’s) and the National Theater, a lavish 19th C theater created when an opera singer (Adeline Patti) refused to come to Costa Rica because of its lack of a decent concert hall. We also stopped at a park where the largest set of craft vendors booths are located.

We then traveled to the National Seminary in San Jose to perform for an audience of 125 seminarians. The acoustics of the medium-sized chapel where Pope John Paul II recently said mass are wonderfully live. Several of the students began singing some of our Renaissance music on their own to enjoy the sound. We then had a combined rehearsal with Patricia Valverde and the two local choirs she directs. I then rehearsed the spiritual Soon ah will be done and motet Ubi Caritas with the combined choirs.

The chapel is almost full for the concert, which went very well – a strong response was received especially for Robert Maggio’s The Wishing Tree (which we had recorded back at Haverford for Albany Records), Alberto Grau's Venezuelan/African Kasar, and Biebl's Ave Maria. After the concert, the seminary host a reception for both choirs. Spanish-speaking bi-co students are spread out at different tables – many interesting conversations take place, especially with one seminarian who is a Costa Rican who grew up in Florida.

Wednesday, May 21 – We travel to Monteverde, the major environmental preserve area, founded by Alabama Quakers in the 1950’s. The bus driver and guide’s skills come into full view as driver Oscar Vargas negotiates unpaved roads and guide Chris Alfaro entertains us with plentiful details on plants, animals, birds, culture, and history of Costa Rica. We stop before lunch at the Poas Volcano, an impressive sight even with clouds hovering over its vast crater.

The next stop is at the La Paz Waterfalls Gardens for wonderful lunch in the main house of the reserve, designed to fit in with the natural surroundings. We are then given a tour of the reserve by our guide Chris. There is an incredible variety of flowers and plants in the gardens, a giant butterfly cage with huge diversity of butterflies and a breeding hut with larvae lined up on rods. We next visit the reserve’s hummingbird observation area with 17 varieties of hummingbirds in great number. Then we hike on to the falls itself – very impressive for the volume of water crashing over relatively narrow ledges; fantastic views, mist in face, etc.

At the end of the day we arrive at our hotel lodge in Monteverde (El Establo Hotel) with spectacular views of the mountains and bay out the windows of our rooms.

Thursday, May 22 – We take a morning trip to the famous Monteverde Cloud Preserve, founded by Alabama Quakers. A woman at the hotel desk was a member of the original community as a child. One of the students stops by the local Friends school in response to a job posting she had seen back in the States. The cloud forest is cool with constant mist – impatiens everywhere and the sound of many different bird calls, introduced by Chris, and one suspension bridge through middle of a tree canopy. The environment brings a special sense of relaxation to all who visit. The gift shop has crafts made locally to benefit the preserve.

In afternoon, some students, with Chris and I, go on the Sky Walk – series of 6 suspension bridges through tree canopy – a little unnerving at first (spiral tower to first bridge) but incredible views of tree tops, valleys, and birds – rare spotting of 3 resplendent quetzals and a toucan. 9 students choose to go on the Sky Trek – long rappelling runs – and come back ecstatic about the experience.

That evening, we sang a concert at St. Helena Church in small nearby town of St. Helena. The small church is packed with people from the town. This was probably the warmest audience of the tour, with many children in attendance. The choir sings exceptionally well.

After arrival back at lodge for dinner, concert organizer Manuel Arce (from the Costa Rica/American Cultural Association) introduced me to a group of visiting Costa Rican doctors and to Karen Olsen – one of the better known “first ladies” of Costa Rica – the American third wife of late president Jose Figueres Ferrer. Olsen was the first lady for his 2nd and 3rd terms after Figueres had abolished army during first term, and is the mother of his son Jose Figueres Olsen, who served as president from 1994-1998. Ms. Olsen had wanted to attend our performance but arrived too late, so after dinner (and two birthday cakes presented by the hotel for students Andrew White and Katie Gentry) we gathered to sing My Lord What a Morning and My Soul's been anchored for her and the group of Costa Rican doctors in attendance, after offering a short speech honoring Costa Rica’s unique democratic legacy.

Friday, May 23
We take a long drive back over dirt roads to Lake Arenal and the Arenal Volcano area – stopping for monkeys along the way – Chris does great monkey calls (on inhales), getting them to bellow out their fantastic sound all over forest (some say the loudest animal call in world). After checking in at the hotel, we stop at a well known hot springs with extensive hot spring gardens near the base of the volcano, which is in full view – rapid, warm waters, water slides, etc. The rim of the volcano is still completely clear (very rare we’re told) and making minor eruptions visible by the streams of hot red lava coming over the side of the crater in the distance. – incredible views and atmosphere as sun sets – we stay for 3 hours – students have time of their lives and probably will talk about this place for a very long time

We stay that night at Volcano Lodge, where our rooms have direct views of the volcano – red lava seen clearly all night.

Saturday, May 24 – We are taken on a rafting trip up a nearby river – the water is calm, and we see close-ups of sloths, snakes, and what is known as the “Jesus-Christ lizard” (because it walks on water) At an unannounced stop along the way, we visit the farm of a pair of nonagenarian brothers and their grandchildren – a rustic, dirt-floored farm with chickens, horses, a simple life – they offer us sit-down snacks of cheeses, flans, breads, and coffee – incredibly good food, warm, kind people – out-house for conveniences; we sing several songs for them (rare, but not first group to have done so) to much approval from our hosts – the guide has long-standing relationship with them – not advertised – only brings groups he sizes up as friendly upon arrival – after we leave, we continue on but many (including me) jump in river and swim and splash each other’s rafts – water has moderately strong current which is lots of fun to swim in going down-stream

Our next concert was that night at La Fortuna Church in Arenal – the first heavy rainstorm of week, even though we’re in rainy season – the church is a larger, open-air church; uncomfortably hot/humid, noisy; we sing for mass, though there is some confusion about where to sing – priest comes in at last minute. I forget to warn students that they can decide to not participate if uncomfortable with the mass (since we normally don’t sing in worship services per se) but some are very upset by tone of service (loud priest haranguing intensely into microphone); several of the Catholic students receive communion; our performance is disappointing because the rain noise makes it hard to hear; the audience is receptive but seems distant. The students return tired to the lodge. We had a good talk on the bus about the concert and the church situation – widely different reactions of the students are expressed along with apologies on my part for not addressing this in advance, and a good discussion about the difference between performing sacred music in a concert as opposed to a worship service, and how both situations can be experienced differently by those who belong to the faith tradition involved and those who do not – and how on occasion this makes for a unified performance, but sometimes this is just not possible, and irreconcilable perspectives must be respected.

Sunday, May 25 -
We leave to return to San Jose. It is a long ride back, with most of the students sleeping through. We arrive at the hotel near the airport (we were moved from first hotel because they booked a large party at the last minute). It is a nice hotel but sterile. At an early rehearsal with Patricia Valverde’s choirs at the Costa Rican/American Cultural Center in San Jose (a very nice hall) – we rehearse the challenging vocal jazz arrangement of Berkeley Square intensively for second time on tour (the first was at La Fortuna before mass) with the goal of doing a piece the students chose as an encore but which always needs last minute rehearsal; the rehearsal goes very well, with the local choirs listening and encouraging us along.

We have a nice snack lunch with them. The students pick up on contacts made with these singers at the beginning of the week at the National Seminary. I have nice, long talk with Patricia Valverde with help of one of their singers translating. She gives me a packet of music by Costa Rican composers to bring home (music which we have already begun to perform).

Our final concert starts auspiciously with the Ward Swingle arrangement of a Bach Fugue, but before we finish, a loud pop is heard, followed by a blackout. The choir doesn’t miss a beat and keeps going till end. Small strobe lights are brought on stage, enough for choir to see my hands. We continue with our Vaughan Williams folk songs, leaving Wishing Tree until later. Continuing in the dark, we sing Kasar mie la gahi, and then Biebl’s Ave Maria, with students giving introductions to the audience in the dark without a microphone. The audience is very comfortable and supportive. The students have a blast singing Kasar in dark (a driving piece with African rhythms) with stomping on risers at the end sounding the loudest it has sounded. The ensemble is very tight, the sound is strong. There is no recording, unfortunately because of the lack of power.

The lights come up just as Josh Stecher finishes singing the incipit to Ave Maria, bringing smiles to all. The audience gives the choir a very warm reception. The visiting choirs sing their pieces with Patricia Valverde. They are enthusiastic and committed, though having trouble maintaining pitch. We sing our combined pieces together under Patricia and myself – then we conclude the concert ourselves (as requested) with spirituals. I surprise the choir and audience a little by walking off stage after starting them in Hogan My Soul’s been anchored and them coming back at very end. They had done this at the farm the day before, and I gave them a little warning in warm-ups to be ready for a “surprise” the Hogan. They stay together beautifully and sing face to face with the audience.

Berkeley Square goes the best it has gone. We finish with great feelings all around – the parents of one of our students are in the audience (an alum who himself sang with me in Chorale). There are a number of choral conductors from within and outside San Jose, who are very warm in greeting us after concert. The US Peace Corps director for Costa Rica gets lots of attention from our students

When I finally get on bus, the4 students are singing the Ave Maria again, on their own, the best sign yet that the tour has been a success.

We had a near disaster at the scheduled farewell banquet at Papa Pez in San Jose – our guide Chris was not feeling well (fever, tooth infection, cold) and so stayed home – Oscar the bus driver takes us in – the proprietor tries to tell us we owe 40,000 colonnes for the musicians (Manuel arrives and helps persuade them otherwise). The small restaurant is very noisy with no private room. A couple of the 10 seniors begin to loose it, fearing farewell toasts won’t happen for them; we try to work something out – should we do toasts on the bus? at the hotel the next morning? find another room?

Folk dancers come out (3 men, 3 women) and start dancing away, eventually involving several of us (including me) and loosening us up a bit. Soon after, most of the other customers then left the restaurant. We went to the proprietor and asked if we could turn off the music and take over a corner of restaurant for toasts, which they agree to. The toasts began and went amazingly well. The mood is just right, everyone can hear, the students’ toasts to each other are well-spoken, humorous and heartfelt – seniors have moment they’ve waited for. The restaurant started to close down before we’d had a chance to sing, so we went outside the restaurant. It’s too close to everything else closing for the night to go anywhere but the bus, so the students stopped on the sidewalk, the seniors forming a closed circle, and everyone sang Berkeley Square, even more beautifully than in the concert. Students singing on a damp sidewalk under a street lamp in San Jose at midnight – who could ask for anything more?

A jovial ride back to the hotel; sleep for the sickly – up all night for the partiers, while being considerate of the sleepers. Overall, in spite of some social problems, the group has treated each other exceptionally well and had a great time and an unforgettable journey together.