Shippensburg University’s Concert Choir is preparing to embark on a May 10-day trip this May across the Baltic states of Eastern Europe: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
The group of 35 (21 students, along with various guests) will be led by SU Professor and Choir Director Elizabeth Shoenfelt Aragunde. On May 9, they will fly from D.C. to Frankfurt, Germany, and then to Tallinn, Estonia.
This trip will mark the farthest east any SU ensemble has traveled.
The choir will spend about three days in each country and will perform one song in each country’s native language. This is a solo trip for SU, so they will be the only group performing in a number of concert halls and churches.
“We are the only people in concert, and we expect the venues where we’re singing will be really full because they love hearing American choirs,” Aragunde said. “We are doing a lot of American music…some gospel, one piece each in Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian. They want to hear us do our stuff. They want to hear happy-clappy gospel.”
Logistically, the trip comes with a price tag of about $150,000. There has been some support from the SU Foundation and small-scale fundraisers, but the trip is almost entirely student funded. Each student will pay roughly $2,500.
The SU Concert Choir has a storied history of taking international trips every four years, and after visiting Ireland in 2019, Aragunde was drawn to the Baltics and their unique musical history.
“They were under Soviet rule for many, many years. Very violent times, lots of oppression, and the arts were dramatically impacted. They were not allowed to sing anything in their own languages,” Aragunde said.
In the late 1980s, hundreds of thousands of Estonians gathered together in song to defy Soviet rule and eventually declare independence.
“While there were other forces at play, the simplified version is that Russians saw this and stopped their tanks. They were able to peacefully, without any bloodshed, gain their independence,” Aragunde said. “Every year in the Baltic states, there are huge singing festivals with choirs of 20 to 30 thousand people singing in these huge amphitheaters that are dedicated to promoting song and promoting the choral tradition. It is an intricate part of who they are and their history.”
There is a unique geopolitical aspect to the choir’s trip, as the countries they will visit are either direct neighbors of or near both Russia and Ukraine. When Aragunde visited the region to scope out locations last July, she could feel the “very palpable anti-Russian sentiment.”
“‘Go ahead and try’ is kind of the attitude in the Baltics. You really wouldn’t know how close you actually are, except for the fact that you’re seeing Ukraine flags everywhere. Life is essentially unaltered except for the very open hatred toward Russia,” Aragunde said.
When they aren’t performing, the Concert Choir will have plenty of time for sightseeing, including taste testing Latvian chocolate that is so good “you would punch a nun for it,” Aragunde said.
“I’m very excited because, as a college student, being able to go abroad in a way that’s relatively cheap, especially not having to plan any of it yourself, and it works perfectly with your academic schedule – those are things you don’t really get. In terms of ease, this is phenomenal,” Concert Choir PR Director Sophia Smith said.
To prepare for their upcoming performances, the SU Concert Choir will host a concert at the Shippensburg First Church of God on April 17 at 8 p.m.