Back on tour: 140 year tradition returns

Kayla Palliser

For the first time since spring of 2020, multiple Augustana ensembles are setting off on tour. In March and April, two of Augustana’s choirs will tour the Midwest, and the Symphonic Band will venture across the Pacific Ocean to Japan.

The Jenny Lind Choir will tour for three days in Missouri and Iowa, visiting a different city each day. According to Dr. Michael Zemek, conductor of the choir, Jenny Lind is more flexible in their annual touring schedule, often traveling locally or regionally over a long weekend or a series of weekend day trips.

“We are going to the St. Louis area, specifically Kirkwood, Missouri,” Zemek said. “Then we are going to sing in Fort Madison, Iowa, which is the hometown of our accompanist Gail Baldwin, and her congregation is hosting us. And then Iowa city is our last stop.”

After an international tour last spring, Augustana Choir will travel on a weeklong regional tour, though on a larger scale than that of Jenny Lind.

“We will be singing in seven cities: three in Illinois, two in Wisconsin and two in Minnesota,” Dr. Jon Hurty, conductor of Augustana Choir, said.

According to Hurty, international tours offer students more time to sightsee and immerse themselves in a new culture. This is the case for the Symphonic Band this spring, led by conductor Dr. James Lambrecht.

“We’re doing three big concerts in 12 days, so all those other days are sightseeing,” Lambrecht said. “We’ll spend most of our time on the main island, Honshu, because of cost. Tokyo is the main location — we’ll spend a week there.”

Other cities on the band tour were chosen because of their connections to music or history. For instance, Hamamatsu is home of the Yamaha corporation and Nagoya is known for its band activities. Kyoto was chosen because it was the capital before Tokyo, with years of architecture surviving World War II.

The Symphonic Band was scheduled to travel to Japan in 2020, but the tour was canceled due to COVID-19. Jenny Lind was the last ensemble to tour before the pandemic, and the group returned just as campus was sent packing. 

COVID-19 represented a historical change to Augustana’s long tradition of touring. According to Lambrecht, the only times when Symphonic Band has not toured since 1882, were World War I, World War II and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tour planning involves connecting with alumni across the country, which was a large part of scheduling the tour venues this year. 

Because of Augustana’s relationship with the ELCA, many tour performances are in Lutheran Churches. Touring also offers ensembles an opportunity to promote the college and recruit future Augustana musicians. 

“We promote the college, the ensemble itself and the music department,” Lambrecht said. “We touch base with alumni wherever we go. There are alumni gatherings or alumni receptions. We’re also trying to recruit the next years’ classes, so we invite high school students to come.”

Ensembles never tour all in the same place, but instead rotate on a regional-national-regional-international schedule. Only one group travels internationally at a time, while another would plan to recruit in the Midwest.

“There’s a strategy to that: How do we share Augustana with these different communities?” Zemek said.

Jenny Lind has only been touring for about a decade, meaning this balance has historically been done by one touring band and one touring choir.

“Since Augie Choir went international last year, they’re going to do a Midwest tour this year and sing in a bunch of churches and do a recruiting tour. Whereas we’re going abroad to Japan,” Lambrecht said. “Next year, Augie Choir will probably go to one of the coasts, like New York or LA, and the Symphonic Band will be in the Midwest.”

According to Hurty and Zemek, touring with an ensemble builds community in a unique way, differently than performing together on campus. 

According to Lambrecht, Augustana’s community-building makes it different from other schools.

“These ensembles are communities. We get to know each other really well, that’s part of our culture,” Lambrecht said. “It sets apart Augustana from major universities, because we’re together for years.”

Zemek, who has fond memories as a choir student himself, remembers the camaraderie that came from performing off-campus.

“I did this as a student and it was always a highlight of every choir experience,” Zemek said. “To be able to offer that opportunity to my students is pretty exciting.”

Lambrecht has a unique experience to share with the Symphonic Band this year. Not only is this the first tour for any current ensemble member, including seniors, but Lambrecht gets to show his students a country he knows well. 

Since 2009, Lambrecht has guest conducted at Musashino School of Music in Tokyo four times, each for three months at a time during the summer.

 “I like sharing the experience with the students, because the students have not seen this, they haven’t experienced this,” Lambrecht said. “I know what it was like in 1984 the first time I went, and it’s such an eye-opening thing to see how they do what they do and learn the culture.”

While students bond and have fun in new performance spaces, they are also representing Augustana from afar, so ensembles work to always put their best foot forward.

“There is always a lot of pressure on the group to present ourselves in a positive way, as we represent the college,” Hurty said. “The few hours that we have to present ourselves and the college to others are important. The impact can be significant, so we do our best to show an attitude of excellence in what we do on tour.”

Touring may be new to students after the pandemic, but it’s deeply rooted in Augustana’s culture for over a century. 

The band has been touring since the 1880s and Augustana Choir has toured since the 1930s. This spring will see a return to tradition after a long hiatus.

“We’re returning to the new normal, but a lot of it looks like the old normal. We’re playing concerts for live audiences, we’re setting up traveling that we’ve done for, in the case of the Symphonic Band, 140 years,” Lambrecht said. “This has been a tradition. This has been a part of our culture that we are finally getting going again.”