By Rick Gabrillo, CYC Manager
Being a part of Conspirare Youth Choirs means more than just presenting local concerts. This summer members of Allegro and Kantorei, along with Manager Rick Gabrillo, Director Nina Revering and accompanist Maimy Fong, toured the province of Quebec, performing in some of the most spectacular monuments in Montreal, Ste.-Anne-de-Beaupré and Quebec City. Singers also enjoyed the local sites and flavors as well as each other’s company.
Rick kept a journal along the way to share with singers, parents, and staff at home. We hope you enjoy it as much as we at the Conspirare office did!
DAY 1 of Rick’s Journal
We are having a great time, and we had a wonderful first day to our tour.
After a very calm and organized take off from Austin (thanks for the on-time drop off, everyone!) we had a short layover at JFK and descended into beautiful Burlington, VT where we were treated to a city with a lush and verdant area of trees and lakes. We enjoyed some quick burgers, fries and ice cream at Al’s and then continued on to Canada.
Led by our hard-working and very friendly tour agent, Trixie, we made it to Montreal. The kids were excited to finally get to our residence for the next 3 days. Delta Montreal is a very clean and attractive hotel with a modern decor. Several kids were heard saying that this is what their apartment will look like when they become adults (look out, parents!).
We had a nice dinner at Restaurant Le Fripon with an efficient and attentive wait staff. After dinner we went out to the plaza and watched with eager anticipation a gentleman who, as it was explained, is one of the last sword swallowers in the world. Keeping a saber down his gullet, he proceeded to do back flips and juggle flaming wands (as well as what appeared to be some type of hand saw). We were all in awe. Luckily no one said that this is what they wanted to do when they became adults!
Our bus ride back to Delta Montreal took us through one of the busiest thoroughfares in the city, near the St. Lawrence River. No one seemed to mind, though, since the weather offered a beautiful mid-70s degree night with clear skies and a calming sunset.
We all went to bed quickly, and we are now ready to start Day 2 with our first performance and further exploration of Montreal.
We had another beautiful day in Montreal!
Should you be fortunate to find yourself in this city, might we recommend the breakfast buffet at Delta Montreal? Each tour member has a breakfast meal card which allows them a wonderful meal at a buffet offering fresh fruits, yogurt, several breakfast meats, eggs, croissants, pain au chocolat, and juice (parents & staff = lots of coffee) – it is definitely a great way to start the morning.
The morning was made even better with a warm-up in the hotel lobby, where they have a grand piano open to any guest to play. I would wager that our warm-up may be on the top 10 beautiful musical moments the lobby has heard. After our vocalization time the kids were eager to board the bus to their first performance.
Montreal is noted for Mont Royal, sitting at the heart of the city. As we ascended higher in elevation we approached L’Oratoire St.-Joseph du Mont-Royal, Canada’s largest church. Gasps and ooh’s were heard around the bus as we approached the beautiful basilica. With a greenish tint to the stone, hinting of its immense history, and a vaulted dome stretching up to the sky, it really is an impressive site. You could hear and feel singers’ expressions of excitement. “We get to sing HERE?!!?”
We were led to our holding room and eventually escorted into the chancel of the Crypt Church. The singers were given a quick crash course in etiquette during a Roman Catholic Mass, and they were very respectful of the absolutely packed attendees and clergy during the ceremony. During the Communion offering, the choir sang “God Be in My Head.” A very lovely and reflective moment, indeed.
After Mass the singers moved to the steps of the altar from where they gave a very well-attended 20-minute concert featuring the remainder of our pieces. It was very nice to hear a word of encouragement from the clergy to the Mass attendees to stay and listen to our concert. About 200-300 people were in attendance, listening from the pews and around the sides of the church.
After a quick lunch at the Oratory café we changed clothes and made our way to the Biodome, a velodrome originally constructed for the 1976 Olympics. It hosted both track cycling and judo events. Now it’s a place where visitors can learn about four different ecosystems. As you walk through the Biodome you can watch live animals from each ecosystem behind glass walls. We also learned what types of sea life are found in the local Gulf of St. Lawrence. The unofficial consensus was that the penguins were the favorite animal in the Biodome, although the octopus wasn’t far behind. (One had to move quickly through one of the ecosystems, though, as I did witness a vindictive seagull who purposefully bombed a visitor. Luckily I avoided its low-altitude strafing run and made it to safety on the other side. No CYC singers were affected by falling gifts from the sky.)
We then returned to the hotel through more back-up of highway traffic. Apparently in Montreal June and July are used as road work months since the majority of citizens take the bulk of their vacation at this time. Consequently the city jams their road improvements into these two summer months. Right now it seems like every highway in the city has road cones and construction equipment. It would be as if Mopac, I-35, 183 and Ben White were all reduced to two lanes at the same time. It’s great traveling with this group, though, as patience seems to be a skill that everyone has in spades.
After a quick break at the hotel (and for some a quick swim in the indoor pool) we headed off to Vieux Montréal Steakhouse. In our private room we feasted on very good steak frites, chicken, and pasta. Needing to walk off some of the calories, we met our tour guides for the last event of the evening, The Ghost Tour of Montreal. We split into two large groups, and the two tour guides walked us through the city, stopping at certain buildings throughout the town and spinning tales of paranormal activity associated with each place. While the weather had held out all day with partly cloudy skies, it chose to stage our ghost tour with a little lightening and light rain. Luckily this was only during the last 10 minutes of our tour, and we made it back to the bus, only slightly damp. We then returned to the hotel for a well-deserved rest.
Off to Day 3 for our next performance in Notre Dame Basilica and our last day in Montreal!
How I wish you were all here to experience this trip with us! When a music teacher leads tours like this one, it’s always their hope to see students bonding over beautiful music-making. What makes these trips life-changing, though, is when you see kids testing the waters by sharing a joke or story with someone they don’t know very well. Then an hour later they’re walking together as we go to our concert venue. And four hours later they’re eating at the same table. Two days later they look as if they’re best friends and there wasn’t a time when they weren’t together.
Both Ms. Revering and I have witnessed this very thing happening with many of our CYC singers during this tour. The younger kids are feeling comfortable with hanging out with the older kids, and the older kids are looking out for the younger kids as if they were their little sisters or brothers. This trip has been a true blessing on both fronts. Beautiful music with a group of kids who grow closer each day… truly priceless.
Day 3 was another great day because it was our final day to experience the Montreal magic. I think this city is bewitching for its interesting history, beautiful river-scape, and the charming locals. There is also a purposed push to support the arts here in Quebec. There are beautiful sculptures in every large public space (as required by the Quebec government), and there seems to be some type of arts festival every week in the summer. If anyone offers some type of class in one of the public parks, like Tai Chi, they cannot charge for the class, it must be free to anyone (again, a law by the local government). For those who crave creativity and beauty, this is a wonderful city to visit. Several of our female singers have expressed that this is where they will be getting married (again…. sorry, parents!…).
We began our day with a FANTASTIC bus tour by a woman named Ruby, a local who told us about city life in Quebec: the underground city/mall, metro system, and beautiful Mont Royal, to name a few highlights. We learned some interesting bits about Montreal: every neighborhood can be identified by a certain type of street lamp; locals don’t walk with coffee in hand, and they tend to look each other in the eye when passing on the street (a silent acknowledgement); and the female to male ratio is 3-to-1 in the city.
After our bus tour we split into smaller groups and had lunch at St. Jacques Quartier. We then reassembled for a lovely concert in the absolutely stunning Notre Dame Basilica. With its rich wood, warm stonework and arched roof, the dark corners and shadows created by the sculptures and architecture really transported you to an old European church. Following our concert we broke up into several adult-led groups for free time in Vieux Montreal (Old Montreal). Ruby had mentioned that while Montreal is a French-influenced city, the stonework and building structures of Vieux Montreal actually have more in common with the architecture of London than of Paris. The groups wandered in and out of different paper stores, art galleries, souvenir shops, maple-sugar confection shops, poutine restaurants (a local delicacy) and Chinatown, while others just strolled by the water. A few adventurous souls, myself included, braved the zip line which went over a portion of the river.
After our free time we marched over to Terrasses Bonsecours, a multi-level, industrial open air-structure created to host several simultaneous cocktail parties/dinners. With different groups of guests on each level, waitstaff deliver and pass drinks and hors d’oeuvres. With faux grass on the floor and low modern couches, everyone enjoyed a New York-hipster-type evening in Montreal.
With this last, but wonderful, day in Montreal behind us, we all returned home to take a final swim in the pool, pack our bags, and enjoy a well-earned night of sleep.
On to day 4, and on to Quebec City, a true French city in Canada! Stay tuned.
Day 4 was the perfect travel day – rainy, overcast and cold. Today (Day 5), the weather is incredible! More on that later, though…
As we packed the bus, we said goodbye to Delta Montreal and its charming city. Perhaps the rain was the city bidding us a tear goodbye (after the ghost tour stories, anything is possible!).
By and large, everyone was completely calm and quiet on the bus. Lots of singers slept. It was a great day to decompress and recharge.
Our stop for lunch was at Chez Dany, an authentic Sugar Shack – a place where they create maple syrup. We took a mini tour. It was interesting to learn that it takes gallons upon gallons of sap to make one small bottle of maple syrup. They only extract about 10% of the sap from the tree, leaving the rest to keep the tree healthy. We also learned about the grading system for purity.
After our brief introduction into the world of syrup-making, we were treated to a meal during which, literarily, one was supposed to use maple syrup as a condiment for every course: corn soup… (+ syrup); beets… (+ syrup); mysterious crispy things… (+ syrup); meat pie… (+ syrup); and for dessert, of course, pancakes with….. SYRUP. It became humorous after a while, and one of our CYC siblings was about to drink it straight-up from a cup before attentive minds put a stop to it.
After recuperating from our brush with diabetes, we breezed through the syrup gift shop before resuming our rainy ride to Quebec City. It was still rainy upon arrival, and everyone was glad to have a few hours off to just sit in their hotel rooms and turn their brains onto “power saver” mode. Some watched TV, some went swimming after the skies cleared, but everyone just rested. Ms. Revering and I discovered a nice street near the hotel (Rue Jacques Cartier) with a laundromat. As we washed and folded CYC shirts, we actually felt that the routine of laundry was kind of a welcome change. Yes…we were that tired.
That evening we dined at an Italian restaurant under the shadow of Chateau Frontenac. This most famous building from images of Quebec City was lit with warm inviting lights, foreshadowing the exploration to take place the following day. This is a great city!
The word in French for “charming” is “charmant.” Having set eyes on Quebec City, I would say Montreal is charming, but Quebec City is CHARMANT! After a pretty poor day of weather on Day 4, we awoke to the most incredibly sunny sky with just a smattering of white clouds. Waking up and opening the curtains to the very true blue sky arching overhead was like opening a wonderful present. Whereas Montreal is a large metropolitan area, Quebec City, the capitol of the province, has preserved its English and French architectural and urban planning influences. As I looked out my window onto the view below, I was excited to see the imposing stone structures that once protected the Old City, the manicured public gardens, the wide thoroughfare avenues, the mature tree-lined streets. This was our introduction to Quebec City.
We were given a free morning, so we divided ourselves into adult-led groups to explore the “Old Town.” Quebec City was originally a walled city, so one must take one of the main roads to reach the protected section of town. As you pass through the two-story tall archways, you also cross a divide in time. The smooth asphalt yields to the bumpiness of cobble stone streets. The old stone and wood buildings stand shoulder to shoulder with different heights and facades. Stores and cafés line the streets, and dozens upon dozens of visitors are moving in all directions.
Ms. Revering and I led a group that took a stroll/walk/hike to the chateau on the hill. The wind at the top was incredible, but the views were even more so. All the effort getting to the top was worth the view out over the St. Lawrence River below. It was really breathtaking. Also at the top of the hill is a very wide and long boardwalk where locals take their morning jog and musicians play for tips. There are also some old cannons still standing, facing out towards the water and waiting for an American invasion that never came. A funicular at the boardwalk can take you down into the lower section of town where there are more shops and local artisan boutiques.
We opted to continue moving upward, so we followed a path up a hill where we had a “Sound of Music” moment. As a slight detour, we stepped off the path onto an absolutely lush, grassy hillside. We all stretched out, rolled down, and/or took a quick snooze (as I did), while the wind blew around us. An impromptu “The Hills are Alive” was begun by Ms. Revering, and some of the older singers engaged in conversations about, “I wonder how much it would be to live here.”
We then continued up the path and walked around the highest walls of the fortification. The path eventually led to a museum which showed the evolution of Quebec City. A special moment happened in one of the tunnels as we were moving through the museum. In this naturally reverberant space, as tunnels often are, the singers launched into “Cerf Volant,” one of their French pieces. The delighted visitors around us began to take pictures and videos. At the end the kids were all smiles, and they seemed to gain back some of their energy they had lost in the upward hike. So fun!
After returning to the lower part of town we had lunch in different pizzerias, sushi restaurants, and crêperies. Following lunch we returned to the hotel to gather our performance attire, and then we took a quick tour out to Montmorency Falls, taller than Niagara Falls. There we divided into two camps: the majority rode the gondola up while a more fitness-seeking bunch took the stairs that ascend next to the falls (450+ steps). At the top there is a lovely café and gift shop along with several lookout points and a bridge from which there are great views of the water.
After the falls we continued on the bus to the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré. (The difference between a basilica and a cathedral, by the way, is that a cathedral is the central church of a Catholic diocese and a basilica is a church to which the Pope has given special privileges.) With its beautiful white stone and Neo-Gothic architecture, this huge basilica seemed to have been air-lifted out of Europe and plopped down right in the middle of rural Canada amid gas stations and motels. Regardless of its improbable surroundings, one could not deny that this was a beautiful building.
Ste.-Anne-de-Beaupré is a pilgrimage site for Catholics who travel there to pray for healing. Pillars at the entrance to the sanctuary are covered in crutches left by people who are said to have been miraculously cured. It was an odd sight, but one that made sense in context.
For this performance the children stood at the altar steps, looking like jewels under the incredibly high vaulted ceilings. I gave my first attempt to present the choir in both English and French before the choir sang exquisitely. Although we had few listeners, the intimacy cast an even greater spell upon all. Even Trixie, our Tour Manager, found herself moved to tears. (See video!)
Once back to the hotel we divided into groups, and the adults led the children back into Old Town for dinner. Everyone returned well fed and tired. A great day, indeed!
END OF DAY 5
Our final tour day in Quebec City began with a bus/walking tour of Quebec City. Our incredibly knowledgeable guide, Robert, gave us an historical perspective of Quebec City. He talked about the early settlers and leaders who founded Quebec City. He also discussed Quebec City’s role as a stronghold throughout the wars with England and America. It was nice to walk through the town and gain a greater historical perspective of the buildings around us. It was a great way to get to know the city better.
After our tour and lunch we grabbed our performance gear and headed to Notre-Dame-des-Victoires. (An interesting note is that this little section of Old Town with the small church was the filming location in the Tom Hanks/DiCaprio film, “Catch Me if You Can.” The scene where DiCaprio finally gets arrested in “France” was the location of this town square.)
In their concert attire the singers formed a circle around a statue in the town square where they sang warm-ups as a musical calling to visitors (then invited into the church for our performance). The calling card worked wonders as people began to fill the pews and settle in for the concert. I gave my French/English introduction a second go-round (I improved this time!), and the kids sang with such joy and life. The smaller, less reverberant space was well suited to the size of their sound, and you could hear the words so clearly. Seeing a pretty full church of people gave the choir even more energy! All in all, it was much agreed that this was the top concert. Following the last song we took some pictures. The kids then broke into hugs and pats on back with congratulations all around. There were also many tears as singers reflected that this was their final tour performance.
Still glowing the kids launched into another song on the church steps while waiting for the bus. It was as if they didn’t want the music to stop. The singing flowed into the evening as we headed to our farewell dinner at Restaurant SSS. With fantastic meal choices (arctic char, flank steak, or sous-vide chicken) we really couldn’t go wrong. We closed the dinner celebration with a presentation of gifts to Ms. Revering and me (thanks, everyone!) along with a special presentation to Trixie and Pierre, the bus driver.
As we headed home to the hotel for our final night, several comments of “This was the best trip ever!” were heard throughout the bus. Mission accomplished!
Well, as I write this we have just crossed the US border heading back to Burlington airport. I’m going to write my last notes now and then post pictures this evening. I won’t be writing another blog tomorrow, as I have only a one day turn around before heading off to Disney World to meet up with my family!
Thanks to Dr. Fong for coming along, not only as a fine accompanist but also as a full contributor to the care of the singers and tour organization.
Our parents on this trip were the best! They pitched in with helping organize the kids, and I think we were all pleased about the new friendships that were made.
While all of the kids on this tour were AMAZING, Ms. Revering and I were particularly proud of the unaccompanied children. They behaved with such maturity and openness to learning. If things got irretrievably lost or they were late for a call time, it was a real opportunity to have discussions on life lessons. Ms. Revering and I really appreciated having that opportunity to be partners in these little moments of growth for your children. CYC Singers are the best!!!!
I think every singer became closer with at least one other singer. Some really look like best friends now. Yay!
Trixie, Pierre, and Music Contact International are a really good tour company, and we were all very pleased. (In fact, all the families on the tour have already concurred they’re going on the next one… and we are now in pre-planning for an international tour – think Europe – in summer 2017. Get ready to hear about it this spring!)
Ms. Revering and I are so happy that your family took a leap of faith and trusted us with your children on this tour. We really feel that life memories were made, and we hope your children will hold onto this week forever in their hearts and minds. Thank you again for the opportunity, and we’ll see you all after summer! Have a wonderful break, and thank you again everyone!
Photos by Rick Gabrillo