A Few Things I Didn’t Expect…

Three out of four waiters in Paris cafes do NOT want Americans to attempt to speak French with them. They simply don’t have the time or patience to listen to us stumble to find the right words. They just say “English, please!” and that’s clearly the end of it. It’s a bit like New York city in that most of the waiters are in a hurry and don’t feel obliged to be overly polite to us. But, ohhh…… the food!  It’s so good that we don’t mind the occasional rude waiter.

Unless you are an avid runner or biker, it’s simply not a good idea to walk down the steps from the second tier of the Eiffel Tower to the ground. Sure, it seems like a great idea at the time, but your calves will hate you for it. It doesn’t matter if you’re 16 or 39 years old, you’ll feel pain every time you walk down steps for the next three days. Also, the avid runners and bikers in the tour group will mock you for not having stronger leg muscles.

Sunflowers! sunflowers1On our drive from Paris to the coastal town of Fouras, we were amazed to see fields of sunflowers on both sides of the highway. I’ve never seen more than a few large sunflower plants growing together in one place, so seeing a field of them with their gorgeous yellow blooms is breathtaking. Our courier, Marianne, explained that they are grown for the seeds to make sunflower oil. For nearly 3 hours, we kept coming across these beautiful fields of flowers.

La Rochelle reminds me of Charleston, SC.  My sister lives in Charleston so I visit there often, and I thought of Charleston as we drove over the wetlands into La Rochelle. Apparently it’s a popular place for bird-watching, and as a beach town with centuries of history it has some similar qualities to downtown Charleston (even though Charleston’s history is a blink in time in comparison).

Caroline Whiddon, VYOA Executive Director     (Photo: Caroline Whiddon)

All About the Concerts

At our first concert in Québec only about 50 people were in attendance. It was slightly disappointing at first, but this little audience was so into the music and so very vocal about telling us this; it was totally worth it to play for the reward: tons of enthusiastic clapping and vocal appreciation.

Loading busses after the concert at La Madeleine

Loading busses after the concert at La Madeleine

The audience at our second concert in Paris was much larger – about 300 people. Our tour guide said that this was incredible for la Madeleine in the summer. Paris has so many concerts offered every night, sometimes attendance can be low. And, it is summer…full of holidays – July 14th is Bastille Day – one of the most widely celebrated French holidays, much like our Independence Day.

This audience was softer in volume than the Québec audience. At first, I was worried that they were just being polite and didn’t enjoy our music very much. But, as I watched members of the audience, I realized that just the opposite was happening – they were really into our music!

Some people sat totally still with their eyes closed while others held their hands over their chests; all listening intently. Afterwards, audience members kept thanking us and telling us how much they loved and appreciated the concert. In fact, some told us that they thought we were a professional orchestra because of the caliber of our playing.

This concert was meaningful to me for two reasons. Two of our living composers (Troy Peters & Drake Mabry) were in the church with us today. AND, two of the composers whose works we performed on the program were actually organists at La Madeleine during the 1800’s (Camille Saint-Saëns from 1858-1877 and Gabriel Fauré from 1896-1905). Although I thoroughly enjoyed playing both the Bacchanal (Saint- Saëns) and the Pavane (Fauré), it was truly amazing to be playing these works at exact the same church were these men worked and played.

The whole time we were playing these songs, I imagined Monsieurs Saint-Saëns and Fauré sitting near the organ at the back of the church, listening in…. For the first time, I wondered if we were playing the pieces exactly the way these composers had intended for them to be played. I wondered if they heard their music performed in this very church 200 years ago and if they smiled, like I smiled as the last chord playfully bounced off the stone walls for several seconds before dying away.

Johanna Taylor, violin     (Photo: Troy Peters)

At la Madeleine


Apologies for the lapse in posts from the orchestra. An interesting – and unexpected – challenge has arisen in the past several days: The text post attachments that I’m receiving from the students and Caroline in France are un-openable on my end! I’ve been sending these posts to our Operations Assistant, who for some odd reason, has been able to open these posts and re-send them to me in a format that I can use. Hence, the delay in communications from the orchestra. My apologies.

I have several texts to upload that were sent during the latter part of this past weekend. I hope to have everything uploaded during the course of today.

VYO in performance at La Madeleine

VYO in performance at La Madeleine

Again, my apologies.

Here are a few shots, taken pre-and post-concert at L’Eglise de la Madeleine. 


(Photos: Rachel Howard, violin &  Linda McSweeney, tour chaperone)

VYO at La Madeleine

VYO at La Madeleine

The Paris Performance

We just played our first concert in France!

Our venue, again, was amazing. Amazing, but really different from the last hall. The hall in Quebec City had clear acoustics where we could hear everything cleanly; here in Paris, we played in l’Eglise de la Madeleine, a very old and majestic church with a very echo-y sound.

Detail from The Last Judgement - by Lemaire - on facade of the church

Detail from The Last Judgement - by Lemaire - on facade of the church

There is an exhibit of modern art currently on display there. So, there were plenty of people milling     around while we unloaded the truck and tried to get the rented cellos and basses in tune. Once we started playing our rehearsal, people sat down to listen and clapped after each piece. There were also a lot of people taking pictures of us; one elderly man in particular came up right next to the podium with his camera, and then made Mr. Peters stop to get his picture taken when he went out to check the balance. The modern art was placed all around the inside and the outside of the church. Some people thought it was a little out of place at the old church, but the sculptures, outside especially, were cool.

La Madeleine

Just being able to play in one of the big tourist attractions of Paris was an honor. The acoustics, though, were thrilling. We would stop at the end of a piece or at a grand pause, and the sound would continue, even though everyone had stopped playing, and bounce around within the expanse of space above us for almost thirty seconds. Melodies would soar above the accompaniment, echoing back a couple seconds later. The end of Drake Mabry’s Prelude and Tango sounded like a jet taking off! We would all smile at each other at each moment of silence or at a big change in dynamics, listening to the boom above.

Suzanne Calhoun, horn

*Editor’s Note

Please scroll back down into previous blog posts for updated information and photos. As the students continue to submit their posts and imagery, I’ll do my best to insert it chronologically.



Americans in Quebec…and then Paris

Bonjour tout le monde!

Today we left our  hotel in Québec at about 11 am. After doing a final sweep of the rooms, the hotel staff declarOld Quebeced our rooms “marveilleuse” (marvelous). Only one student forgot an instrument!

The busses dropped us off in the square by the Château Frontenac, the most photographed hotel in the world. Then, we split up into groups to explore this oldest walled city north of Mexico. A spacious boardwalk overlooks the St. Lawrence River in front of the Château. This is also the site of the infamous funicular, a glorified elevator originally used to transport goods from the ports to the haute ville. Now, it carries the swarms of tourists up and down between the upper and lower sections of Vieux Québec. And, the lower level  of Old Québec is the dictionary definition of picturesque: narrow cobblestone streets and brightly shuttered stone houses lined up on either side.

For lunch we dined on Ashton’s fine poutine, a delicious Canadian classic of French fries and cheese curds, served with ladles of piping hot gravy on top.

The bus ride back to Montreal was long but thankfully unimpeded by traffic jams along our route. The airport was another story – endlessly snaking lines just for checking baggage and then again for going through security. We still managed to arrive on time to our gate.Bound for Paris

So far, our flight to France has been uneventful, except for minor turbulence at the beginning.  Now it’s time for a little sleep before we arrive in Paris in a few hours.

A bientôt!

Blaise Gervais, viola   (Photos: Oliver Ames, violin)

And more…

The VYO has arrived in Paris as of this morning. VYOA Executive Director Caroline Whiddon emailed me moments ago with the following update:

“We’ve been traveling for the last 26 hrs on bus, plane, and bus….. but we arrived safely. The tour has been GREAT so far, and everyone is healthy & happy.  Also, I can see the top half of the Eiffel Tower from my hotel room!”

Rachel Howard forwarded several beautiful photos from the orchestra’s first afternoon in Paris.

Amusez-vous bien!

Lisamarie Charlesworth, VYOA Director of Marketing                                         (Photos: Troy Peters & Rachel Howard, viola)

Au Quebec!

Wearing red ribbons - the Quebec concert was a benefit for a local AIDS organization.

Wearing red ribbons - the Quebec concert was a benefit for a local AIDS organization.

Sightseeing in Quebec City

Sightseeing in Quebec City

Our first concert in another country!

We played in the Palais Montcalm in Québec City last night- it was an amazing hall. Our audience may not have been very big, but it was so much fun to play in the hall anyway, I don’t think we noticed. This hall was acoustically designed for an orchestra, unlike the Flynn where we normally play, so everything sounded so clear. It was also visually beautiful, with lots of dark wood.

Just before the concert, we were hanging out in the Green Room chatting and laughing. Some of us began chanting “Duncan, Duncan” to get him to fiddle for us. It worked. He played us several tunes, and it was just the thing to rouse everyone and put us in the mood to perform. We were all cheering and clapping- it was awesome!

Because of the acoustics in the hall, we all experienced hearing elements within our playing that we’d never heard before. At breakfast today, we compared notes on these details. Overall, we think the concert went well; we all had a lot of energy, because we were (and are) so excited to be traveling together!

VYO members pose with their tour poster.

VYO members pose with their tour poster.

When we left the hall after the concert, there was a huge crowd outside. Cirque de Soleil (the biggest circus in the world, based in Canada) was performing a free show as part of the annual music festival in Québec City. The buildings surrounding us were bathed in bright colors; the stage, also lit, was surrounded by manmade fog. A security guard kept telling everyone to move back. We learned why, when fireworks violently exploded nearby!

We are having tons of fun!

Suzanne Calhoun, horn

And More….

The sun finally came out today – it felt nice after a week of rain! I toured Québec with my friends until the late afternoon. The city just as gorgeous as the weather was beautiful. We walked into Château Frontenac. It was amazing inside: walls that were made of wood and gold chandeliers draped from the ceiling. Afterwards we explored the boardwalk and the Citadel, all surrounding the river.

It was great workout going up all the stairs that ran along the edge of the cliff, but very much worth the effort. The cool wind chilled us when we got too hot from climbing and the view from the top was spectacular. We are now on our way to Montréal to catch our plane to Paris…Absolutely cannot wait to be in this beautiful city!

Daphnée Vandal, violin    (Photos: Caroline  Whiddon & Troy Peters)

The Last Minute

Yesterday was the last full rehearsal day at the Music Center. The mood was decidedly upbeat. In between large sections of music one could hear Troy’s voice bobbing up and down in volume and the laughter of the students on stage.

Late in the afternoon, the students gathered for VYO senior recognition – kind of an annual ritual Troy holds whether the orchestra is touring or not. He singles out each senior, acknowledges his or her work in the orchestra and awards each student with a certificate. He also relates anecdotes about his experiences with each student – in most cases, these are hilarious tales. He ended the afternoon reminding the orchestra members of their upcoming  musical mission, “You are going to change lives with this music, so remember to be great!”

Afterwards, the students met their chaperones, posed for a few parting “Bon Voyage” photos, enjoyed pizza and attended a French cultural training session.

The sheet music and percussion are packed. The taxi horns (for An American in Paris) are bubble-wrapped. After this evening’s concert at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, it really is Bon Voyage.

Lisamarie Charlesworth, VYOA Marketing Director

(Photos: Caroline Whiddon & David Yandell)