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Umbrian Serenades: participants' perspectives
by Jill and Bob von Trebra for Vocal Area Network
Posted April 11, 2009

Umbrian Serenades at the DuomoUmbrian Serenades was an awesome experience! We -- Jill and Bob von Trebra -- joined the group during the summer of 2008, and we loved it!

Jill went to sing.  She is a professional music educator, and has had the pleasure during her career of performing with some outstanding groups in some beautiful locations: The Westminster Choir, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, to name a few. But this was truly something different -- a group of some professional, but mostly amateur musicians who sing purely for enjoyment. And this was an enjoyable experience. Paulo Faustini and Pam Simpson (replacing Holly Phares, who was unable to participate that year) did an amazing job of blending the voices of these people, many of who met for the first time in the Rome airport at the start of the trip, into a truly beautiful ensemble.

After rehearsing in Spoleto for about a week, we performed four times. The first was an impromptu performance in the "sacred woods" on the mountain overlooking Spoleto. This was where St. Francis and his brothers walked eight centuries ago, but it was considered sacred by area residents even before Jesus lived. The second performance was in the Duomo, the cathedral in Spoleto, surrounded by the stunning frescoes of Fra Filippo Lippi. The third performance was in the magnificent Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, at the end of our day-long trip to that historic city. We expected to sing in the lovely Lower Basilica, but received an unexpected last-minute honor of being invited to perform in the heavenly Upper Basilica, surrounded by the priceless frescoes by Giotto, depicting the life of St. Francis. Even the basilica's ushers were impressed by what they heard, making a brief exception to their stern policy forbidding talking or photographs. The final performance was at a church in Siena, where living congregants and the relics of long-departed saints came together for a mass that was enriched by the music of Umbrian Serenades, and then stayed for a concert afterwards.

The performances were amazing. The voices filled those lovely sacred spaces, and the sound reverberated off of walls and domes for several seconds after the singing stopped. But Jill says the best part was the time spent in rehearsals in the lovely old church in Spoleto, now deconsecrated, where the musicians would spend hours each day "just making music," with an occasional tourist looking in the back door, curious to see where such heavenly sounds were coming from.

Bob didn't go along to sing. He was a groupie, there to enjoy and support the musicians. But he also went along for the chance to explore the quaint towns of Spoleto, Assisi and Siena. We had traveled to Italy before, on a typical whirlwind tour of the big tourist spots: Rome, Florence, Venice, Sorrento and Pompeii. That trip was interesting and enjoyable, but this was different. Bob had time to explore the back streets of Spoleto, worship in the Duomo on a Sunday morning, visit the positively ancient church of San Salvatore on the outskirts of the city and explore the fascinating cemetery next to the church, practice his Italian while purchasing a book in a local shop, and spend some time reading while sipping a beverage on the Piazza del Mercato, the market square. Other non-singers made day trips to explore other Umbrian towns with the expert and gracious assistance of our lovely Italian guide, Umbrian Serenades' Cultural Coordinator, Daniela.

Of course, Bob did enjoy the music as well. He is an amateur "music appreciator." Though many of the pieces the group sang were unfamiliar to him, he knew the singing was beautiful. In the Credo of the Hassler Mass, he could hear Christ's resurrection and ascension into heaven. In Moses Hogan's Elijah Rock, he was fascinated to hear the many complex vocal parts all fit together. And the soaring melodies of Franz Biebl's Ave Maria gave him chills.

We both went to partake of the many "tastings" of Italian food, art and culture. We enjoy learning and experiencing new things, and this trip was a literal and figurative feast: cooking classes, wine tastings, cheese tastings, art lessons and history lessons. Who knew that farro and arugula would combine to make an interesting and delicious salad? Who knew that Montefalco Rosso was such a rich-tasting wine? Who knew that wild boar is so delicious, cooked in a sauce made from the local Sagrantino wine? Who knew that cave-aged cheese tastes delightful with a little bit of onion jelly, or that fine olive oil tastes peppery when you sip it?

We returned from our 12-day trip tired, but satisfied. As on other trips we have made to Europe and Asia, we returned with many pictures and a few souvenirs. But on this trip, we believed we left something beautiful behind in Italy -- the fading but still moving resonances of beautiful music in special places. We serenaded Umbria, and it spoke to our souls in return. One might be tempted to call it a once-in-a-lifetime experience, except that many people who have been a part of Umbrian Serenades have returned for a second or third tasting… or more. We may do the same some day.

For more information about Umbrian Serenades, visit www.umbrianserenades.com.

Jill and Bob von Trebra were participants in last summer's Umbrian Serenades.

Content Contact: Jill and Bob von Trebra.
Revision Date: April 11, 2009.
Technical Contact: Steve Friedman.

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