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Chorus of Westerly heads to central Europe

WESTERLY — Ryan Saunders was a teenager when he traveled to Europe with the Chorus of Westerly on a European singing tour that changed his life. Today, the Chorus of Westerly executive director hopes to change the lives of others when he leads 180 people to Prague, Vienna, and Budapest on the chorus’s first overseas tour since 1995.

“I was a 16 going on 17 and I got to sing in Westminster Abbey,” Saunders said earlier this week as he pieced together the final pieces of the journey — a project he’s been working on for the last 24 months. “When I came back from that trip I knew I wanted to have a career in the arts.”

Saunders, who’s been at the chorus helm since 2009, said if there’s one thing he’s learned while planning the trip, it’s that the Chorus of Westerly is a strong, healthy and vital arts organization.

“It was a confirmation of what I really already knew,” he said: that the tour would be an important step for the chorus “and the extended chorus family including the whole town of Westerly.”

“Not everyone gets to sing in Smetana Hall,” said Saunders. Smetana Hall, one of the most famous concerts halls in Europe, is located next to the Powder Gate in the historic center of Prague and is known for its excellent acoustics. The chorus will be performing Antonín Dvořák’s “Stabat Mater,” which Dvořák premiered — and conducted with the Czech Philharmonic — in 1896. “We had to be vetted before we were allowed to sing there.”

“To think we’re singing Dvořák in Prague with a Czech orchestra,” he said, “that’s really special.”

As Saunders told the Sun last spring, “We are thrilled to be able to bring the spirit of our small town to these grand cities where so much classical music was born.”

Music Director Andrew Howell called the tour “an important step in the right direction.”

“It brings us back onto the world stage,” said Howell, who will be traveling with his whole family: wife, Emily, and three children, Sadie, 6, Rowan, 4, Henry, 2; his father, his mother, and mother-in-law, and assorted other in-laws. “This is a huge deal for the singers...a tremendous adventure that’s wonderful for everyone, including the town of Westerly. We’re bringing Westerly to Europe.”

“It raises everything, brings everything to the next level,” Howell said.

Saunders, who’s been keeping a blog about the tour preparations, including a “Fun Facts” list, said the oldest person going on the tour is 85 and the youngest is 19 months.

“We have three 10-year-olds going,” he said, “and one family with four generations.”

Longtime chorister Pamela Young, who’s been on all four previous chorus tours, along with here twin sister, Stevie Blanchette, has been helping organize the music for the tour.

“There are 11 of us who have gone on all the other tours,” she said.

Under George Kent, music director emeritus of the chorus, the group toured three times: to England and Scotland in 1981, to Italy in 1987, and to England and Wales in 1995. On these tours, the chorus sang in many prominent cathedrals, churches, and concert venues. Highlights included being one of the first American choirs to sing at King’s College Chapel and Westminster Abbey, closing the 1987 Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds, and singing High Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.

After Prague the chorus heads to Stephansdom (or St. Stephan’s Cathedral) in Vienna, then to Matthias Church in Budapest, which Saunders called “an exceptional, historic church noted for its histories of coronations and music.”

The chorus returns to Westerly on July 22.

“I can’t stress what a big deal this is,” said Saunders. “Just how incredible an experience this is. Especially for Andrew... this is only his second year.”

“To make a baseball analogy,” added Saunders, an ardent Yankees fan. “We’ve made it to the playoffs.”

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