James Niblock, facing a momentous undertaking, thought of the stars.
“A week from now, you won’t recognize the constellations in the sky,” Niblock ’97, associate professor of music and director of choral activities at Allegheny College, wrote in an e-mail to his choir students.
An entirely different collection of stars shines in the Southern Hemisphere.
Today, after more than 18 months of planning, preparation and practice, 19 students from the Allegheny College Chamber Choir will depart for New Zealand in what will be the choir’s first international performance tour since 1980 and its first-ever tour to the South Pacific. The two-week trip will include performances in Auckland, Whitianga, Rotorua, Christchurch and Queenstown, along with plenty of sightseeing opportunities and an introduction to Māori culture.
For Morgan Hazzard, a 21-year-old biochemistry major from Lafayette, Colorado, the trip is the ultimate capstone to her college career. She was among the eight choir members who graduated on Saturday with the class of 2017.
“It will be the most incredible last experience I could have at Allegheny,” Hazzard said a few days before Commencement. “I couldn’t think of ending my senior year any other way. This is it. This is what we’ve been waiting for.”
The trip is breathtaking in both scope and purpose, involving more than 30 hours of air travel, including layovers (and that’s just one way); eight performances in five cities; and 27 pieces of music sung in eight different languages, including native Māori. It is one of the most logistically complex endeavors the choir has undertaken in recent memory, requiring extensive support from alumni and donors. There are also hundreds of people waiting on the other side, including partner choirs from other schools and organizations as well as host families who have agreed to house the students for parts of their stay.
The tour is the culmination of what began as decidedly smaller-scale discussion in November 2015. Then, Niblock was floating the idea of a California trip, maybe over spring break, or perhaps a European tour.
“By the time I said going to New Zealand was a possibility, everybody’s jaws just dropped to the floor,” said Niblock, who will lead the students along with pianist Douglas Jurs, assistant professor of music at Allegheny. Rounding out the entourage will be alumnus Jeffery L. Webb ’98, himself a collegiate choral director and avid singer.
“We’re not testing the boundaries of campus or the boundaries of Pennsylvania or how far we can take a coach bus,” Niblock said. “We’re testing the boundaries of what’s familiar. We’re going to a place where a European culture we understand very well exists side-by-side with a Polynesian culture most of us don’t know about. The ‘not familiar’ part meets a lot of musical and institutional goals.”
Chamber Choir New Zealand Tour – Allegheny College
John Knobel, a music major from Carlisle, Massachusetts, started singing in fourth grade. He joined the Allegheny choir as a first-year student and now plans to pursue a career as a choral conductor, a music teacher or a music therapist after graduation.
The New Zealand trip is a chance to grow and do what he loves while being an ambassador for Allegheny, said Knobel, 22.
“Anywhere we go, we always have Allegheny on our chest,” he said. “We’re all representing the college. The relationships we’re going to (build) with other schools and other choirs are very important to our education on an individual level, but also to the groups as a whole and to their improvement.”
He’s looking forward to staying with local families.
“I’ve stayed in a few different countries in hostels and you always meet different people and you always gain new perspectives on their lives and experiences,” Knobel said. “It’s always something you can grow from.”
Unlike Knobel, most of the students in the choir are not music majors. The 19 students traveling represent 26 different major and minor programs and nine different states. Ben Thomas, a tenor who joined the choir as a first-year student, graduated with a neuroscience degree on Saturday.
“In many ways it sums up Allegheny as a whole,” said Thomas, 22, of California, Pennsylvania. “There are only two or three music majors in the Chamber Choir and the rest of us are in different disciplines. We all get to take this trip halfway across the world to a place we’ve never been.
“It’s basically the textbook definition of ‘unusual combinations,’” he said, referring to Allegheny’s national reputation as a place where students are encouraged to explore their unusual combinations of interests and talents. Students often focus their energies and curiosities on courses of study that are not closely linked to their major.
Beyond the opportunity to travel abroad, the choir has helped forge deep friendships that will continue beyond college careers, Hazzard said.
“I could care less where we go,” she said. “I just want to be with this group of people.”
Read student blogs about the trip under “News & Events” on the Music Department website.