Viterbo Alumni Join Choir's Tuneful Travel Tradition

Wednesday, January 18, 2023
Viterbo University choir in Austria
For more photos from the recent Viterbo University choral concert tour of Austria, visit the online photo gallery.

Viterbo University students have a long history of taking flight to share music with the world, going back at least 50 years.

Music Professor Daniel Johnson-Wilmot has only missed one trip since 1978, when he led a concert tour to Poland. Reflecting on the recent two-week choral concert tour in Austria, he emphasized that there’s a lot more to these tours than sightseeing with a side of singing.

Dan Johnson-Wilmot
Daniel Johnson-Wilmot

“If you talked to every student who ever went, you wouldn’t find one who wouldn’t say they got their money’s worth,” said Johnson-Wilmot, who served as Austria tour director as well as singing in some of the performances. “I tell students who don’t go on these trips they really miss something. They miss learning about a new culture, but more than that, they miss the musicality and bonding and the finessing of the music that happens after seven or eight performances.”

Between the sense of bonding, the honing of their performances, and the inspiring settings for concerts, almost everybody who takes part in one of the choral concert tours experiences an overwhelming sense of awe at some point, Johnson-Wilmot said, likening it to an out of body experience.

“That’s why you sing, for those experiences,” he said.

The Austria trip was the first Viterbo choral concert tour for James Wilson, who chairs the university’s music department and served as music director for the tour.

James Wilson
James Wilson

The thing that inspired awe in Austria for Wilson, who came to Viterbo’s Conservatory for the Performing Arts in fall 2021, was the chance to hear his singers perform in the incomparable acoustic settings offered in historic churches in Vienna and Salzburg, spaces where great composers first heard their works performed many years ago.

“Their music was written for those spaces,” Wilson said. “There’s really nothing quite like singing these works in St. Peter’s Church in Vienna and the cathedral in Salzburg.”

In addition to Wilson and Johnson-Wilmot, the choir featured 31 singers, including three 2022 graduates —Zane Rader, Nathan Janzen, and Matthew Olson (the latter two graduating just before the trip)—and four other alumni singers who graduated in previous years.

Wilson explained that some students who had been planning to go to Austria had to drop out, so alumni were recruited to take those spots, based on their voice ranges, proximity to La Crosse, and ownership of a passport. Having the alumni as part of the trip was something special, he added.

“At first, we were simply filling plane seats and trying to balance the tenor and bass sections, but as the tour progressed, we got to see a new community take shape,” Wilson said. “I think that when you assemble any well-trained choir and it goes on tour, the community builds itself upon the music and the experienced being shared.”

Andrew Kaiser and Jennifer Burch
Jennifer Burch '99 and Andrew Kaiser '01 went on Viterbo choir tours that took them to Austria when they were students at Viterbo, in 1994 and 1998, respectively, and they got to revisit the experience on the choir's recent tour of Austria.

Three of the older alumni had been on Viterbo international choir trips before. Jennifer Burch, a 1999 music performance graduate, and Andrew Kaiser, a 2001 music education graduate, were both part of trips that took the choir to Austria  (in 1994 and 1998).

For Kaiser, who grew up on a farm near Wausau, that first trip for him in 1998 was an eye opening experience, his first time overseas. “My jaw just dropped when I saw all the amazing spaces we sang in,” he said, recalling the 1998 trip led by Earl Madary ’88 and Dean Yohnk ’87.

Kaiser, a current member of the Viterbo University Alumni Association Board of Directors, laughed as he recalled how sick of eating schnitzel most of the students were during the Austrian leg of the tour, only to get schnitzel for their first meal in Italy, too. Whenever the choir went, he said, they offered a musical gratuity, singing impromptu tunes in restaurants and hotels, even for their bus drivers.

This year's concert tour was Burch's third choir trip to Austria. She went with her choir when she was a senior at Totino-Grace High School in Fridley, Minn., where a 1980 Viterbo graduate, Terry Voss, was her choral director. Her freshman year at Viterbo, Burch went with the university's choir to Austria and the Czech Republic.  

With her high energy and young-at-heart approach to life, Burch most of the time felt like she was just part of a "traveling community of singers," a choir member indistinct from the other student singers. But then there were times when she had to take a maternal stance, too. "My role was kind of ever-changing, depending on the situation," she said. "There were definitely times when I was the choir mom."

That's fitting, since she knew some of the students as friends of her oldest daughter, Alexandra, who graduated from Viterbo in 2021 with a music performance degree. Also, she came to realize, she was the only person on the trip who had raised children.

Going back to her days as a Viterbo student, Burch has sung with the Cathedral Gallery Singers at La Crosse's Cathedral of Saint Joseph the Workman. Singing in the historic churches of Vienna and Salzburg, though, was on a whole other level, practically magical, especially the final concert of the tour on New Year's Eve Day. "It was just perfect," she said. "By the end we were a well-oiled machine and our performance was flawless. It was just a great, great concert." 

Burch took great pains to document the trip as it unfolded, posting collections of photos on Facebook any day she had wi-fi access. "It was just so amazing this time around," she said. "I don't want those memories to ever fade."

Hunter Evenson
Hunter Evenson '18 is pictured on a bridge over the Danube River in Vienna, Austria, during the recent Viterbo choir tour.

Hunter Evenson ’18, a music education graduate who teaches K-12 music in the Brookwood School District, took part in a 2013 Austrian concert tour. He jumped at the chance to join the recent tour as an alumni choir member.

The day the other choir members left for Austria, though, he had to lead an elementary school holiday concert, so he had to join the tour two days late. He was missed. In unheated Austrian churches, pitch pipes can freeze and organs might not be accurate, so his rare gift of perfect pitch came in handy.

Evenson sang in the same towns during the 2013 Austria tour, but the venues were much grander this time, particularly the cathedral in Salzburg. “We were very fortunate to sing in that place,” he said.

The recent tour of Austria was the first time overseas for Caitlin Fallon, who graduated in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience. While she didn’t major in music, she had plenty of time singing at Viterbo between the Concert Choir, Platinum Edition, and the St. Francis Choir, in which she still sings.

David Caliri and Caitlin Fallon
Caitlin Fallon '20 is pictured with her fiancé, David Caliri, a Viterbo music performance major who will graduate in May. They both were part of the recent choral concert tour of Austria.

“I have always loved singing, so I wanted to find a school where I could participate in the arts while pursuing a major in the sciences. Viterbo was my place,” said Fallon, who sings in the Viterbo Choral Arts community choir project directed by Wilson, as does Burch, who helps run the choir.

After graduating in May 2020, Fallon jumped into a physical therapy doctoral degree program at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Pandemic isolation and the rigors of her studies had left Fallon feeling emotionally and physically drained, so she jumped at the chance to join the choir’s trip to Austria with her fiancé, David Caliri. He’s a Viterbo music performance major who will graduate in May.

“Being able to break out of that cycle to go on an adventure and live in the moment was a reawakening,” Fallon said. “Singing beautiful music, eating delicious food, seeing professional operas, and exploring historic places with my fiancé and our friends gave me a lot of much-needed joy and a new perspective on my life and the world. This trip was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I will forever treasure the memories I made on this trip.”

Rhiannon Baasch
Rhiannon Baasch

Only two of the current students who sang in Austria had been overseas before the Viterbo trip: senior music education major Rhiannon Baasch of Minocqua and junior music major Greta Schwandt of Green Bay. Oddly enough, they discovered they had both been part of the same 2018 Wisconsin Ambassadors of Music tour.

Greta Schwandt
Greta Schwandt

Both Baasch and Schwandt mentioned the same moments of awe experienced during the tour. One was singing in the cathedral in Salzburg, where they only had two minutes to rehearse and get acclimated to the choir loft before the Mass began.

The other moment was at the tour’s last performance at St. Peter’s Church, singing their last song, “Oh Magnum Mysterium.” For Baasch, it was an emotional moment, realizing this was the last time singing with the group, as she’ll be busy student teaching spring semester at State Road Elementary and Aquinas High School.

For both Schwandt and Baasch, that last performance also was inspiring for the sheer musical majesty of the choir’s sound, honed by the tour to something approaching perfection.

“The choir sang beautifully. They really did,” said Johnson-Wilmot, who is fluent in German and understood when audience members were saying “first class” and “a feast for the ears.”

Viterbo’s overseas choral music adventures started in 1972, when the Marianettes choir went on a European USO tour, entertaining at U.S. military installations. Over the years since, choral groups from the university have performed all over Europe, typically every four years, in countries including France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, and more, in addition to Austria.

This tour was only the second of Viterbo’s international choral trips to take place over the Christmas holiday. The timing was intentional, Johnson-Wilmot said, to maximize the choir’s opportunities to perform.

Ellyn Werner
Ellyn Werner

“You definitely missed your family, but we all had a good time and had a party on Christmas morning that was fun,” said junior music education and vocal performance major Ellyn Werner of Lake Mills. “They kept us busy and there were lots of amazing things to do. We had a very fun group.”

In addition to the choir performances, students on the tour also had some peak musical experiences as spectators. Everybody attended at least two operas, including a staging of “Daughter of the Regiment” that featured world-class tenor Juan Diego Flórez, whom several got to meet after the performance, thanks to Evenson noticing the previous night where the stage door was situated.

For many of the tour members, including Werner, it was the first time seeing full opera performances. “I just loved it,” said Werner, who plans to go to Chicago later this month to see Flórez perform again. “Time totally stopped for me. We were all so giddy.”

Caliri, a native of Bemidji, Minn., said he found the experiences he had on the choir’s trip to Austria had a profound effect on him.

Viterbo University choir in Vienna
James Wilson conducts Viterbo's concert choir on Christmas Eve in Vienna, Austria. (Andrew Kaiser photo)

“I would say it’s given me direction to reflect on my future and where I want to go,” Caliri said. “I would encourage anybody to take an opportunity like that if it’s presented to them. It’s an experience that’s well worth it, regardless of what your career is going to be.”

The international concert tours happen every four years, and Wilson said he could definitely see future tours having more alumni participation.

“In the future we would seek to do more of an open invitation and build a separate alumni group, possibly even a separate alumni choir. This would take a lot more planning in the early stages, but I think it would be worth the effort,” Wilson said. “The opportunity to sing and travel with your alma mater as part of a highly trained community of musicians is really special. Not many other programs on campus can offer that.”

For his part, Johnson-Wilmot plans to keep going on the choral concert tours. “As long as I can continue to walk as fast as the students and I’m needed, I will go,” he said.

At the opera in Vienna
Viterbo University's choral concert tour of Austria included two opera productions, with an option to see a third.