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September 13, 2023

Adam Potter Interviewed, Director of Choral Activities When the Chorale was in the Baltics

Exciting tours of the US student choir in the Baltic countries.

Story by Jurate Terleckaite. Story posted online at The below is translated to English from Lithuanian. 

Roberts Choir in St. Kazimier's Church in Vilnius

Roberts Choir of St. Kazimier's Church in Vilnius. Author's photo.

On May 15-22 in Vilnius St. Kazimiero, Kaunas St. Francis Xavier, Riga St. John and Tallinn St. The Roberts Mixed Choir from Wesleyan University (New York State) performed at St. John's Church, presenting a program specially prepared for this tour, "War Will Cease and Peace Reign on Earth." The concerts received warm reviews, and the song "Anojo pišej Dunojelio" brought tears to the large audience.

At the end of the concert and educational tour, the choir's artistic director and conductor, Adam Potter, vocal music professor Constance Fee, and choristers Megan Tatro and Nick Lopez shared their impressions.

A group of students smiles overseas.

Dear Adam Potter, Please tell me when Roberts Choir was formed; how many choristers are there?

22 singers came for the tour of the Baltic countries, although there are usually 30-40 of them. The choristers had to pay for the trip themselves, so not everyone could come. The university was founded in 1886, but the choir was assembled much later, already in the 20th century. The first tours abroad took place in the 20th century. In the 1950s, it was headed by Gregory Goida. I have been leading the choir since 2017.

How do you choose the concert programs, or do you adapt them according to the culture of the country you are going to?

We prepare three programs each semester. Every fall, the choir prepares a program together with the university orchestra for the beginning of studies. For Easter and Christmas, we organize a concert together with the orchestra and other choirs. We play three shows in the States and tour a different country every three to four years. During the four years of study, every student has the opportunity to go on a tour around the country and abroad.

How do you choose your repertoire?

Diversity is very important to me. Choral music is a living art. Students perform not only historical works, but also 21st century works. Works of composers. I want students to experience that we are constantly improving and moving forward. It is very important for me to include in the program the works of composers who are still alive. Historical musical works written before the 20th century are also important. In the program we performed in the Baltic countries, there were no historical songs or hymns, we perform a lot of them during our academic studies. In previous years, we performed motets by Hildegard von Bingen, J S. Bach, Mexican Baroque motets, works by Pakalbelo, WA Mozart, J. Haydn, J. Brahms, F. Mendelssohn, which we consider to be canonical, with which it is important to introduce students. Choristers are taught to perform not only songs of the Western tradition. For example, the choir performs a Cook Island Maori war song with haka dance choreography. Every year we perform a song that is not related to Western culture, because choral music is created all over the world. Every year we perform songs from the African-American tradition, which are arguably America's greatest contribution to the world of music.

What is your choral singing school?

Our singers are trained in the bel canto singing tradition at the university. The foundation laid in the studio is very important to me. I hope that the principal voices need minimal adjustment to sing most of our repertoire. For students who do not take private singing lessons, choir is where they learn to sing. So, especially at the beginning of the school year, I focus on training their voice technique, in the Italian manner.

Renata Marcinkute-Lesieur was impressed by the professionalism of your choir. You, your choristers are distinguished not only by professionalism, but also by modesty. How do you balance these two qualities?

I'm a bit of a self-promoter, it's not my forte. Career is not important to me, the most important thing for me is to give students the best possible experience, which means that they learn and develop as much as possible. When I focus on serving others, I am no longer the center of attention. Everyone in music "falls" into their ego from time to time. I hope that as often as possible, I serve as a pastor rather than taking care of myself.

Are the singers of your choir believers, practicing and not hiding it? How do you reconcile faith with modernity?

This is a very complex issue. I think it's much easier in America. On a typical Sunday morning, about 40 percent of the American population attends church. Although it is a minority, but a significant minority, this number is decreasing and I think it will continue to decrease, but 40% of self-identified Christians, it is a large community. Reconciling modernity with faith is a challenge. People combine it in different ways. I appreciate very much that I work at this university associated with the Church. There is no culture of war mentality here. I speak as a Christian, I want to harmonize what is best in me, I want to see the world through the glasses of faith, to communicate with others with compassion, grace, love and a spirit of service. I try to look at the world through this prism.

Why is faith important to you?

My family is a believer. It's a family tradition. At the university, I had the opportunity to express my doubts about Christianity, the truths being proclaimed, and to check them.

Did you have a spirit guide or did you follow the path of your experience?

I had amazing mentors. The greatest spiritual influence in my spiritual life was the conductor of the choir, who was a Christian and lived his faith humbly and sincerely. Every time he stood on the podium in front of the choir, we could feel the peace emanating from him. He had an incredible influence on me. “If he believes it, it's okay for me to believe it too!” I used to tell myself. This is the person who first brought me as a chorister to the Baltic countries 18 years ago.

Is faith a personal matter for the members of the choir you lead, or do you influence it?

We are all on a journey of faith, this diversity is special. No matter where you are on the journey, from the committed to the total non-believer, there is a place for everyone here, they have a space to express themselves. As it is a Christian university, the vast majority are believers. There are also non-believers, I hope they will share the positive experience of being accepted and loved, even if they do not know Jesus Christ personally.

There are two choristers in your choir who are responsible for prayer, before every concert you all pray together, a meditation is read.

Yes, those responsible for the prayers are chosen by the choir members for one year. During rehearsals I step aside, on Mondays they share a short meditation or ask one of the choristers to share a reflection on something important to them. We often meditate on the Bible, other times on one of our musical works whose music or song touched us in a special way. On Wednesdays we have an "encouragement box". Students send each other, express some word of encouragement, recognition or thought to each other in order to support each other. It was my idea. It is important to me that every individual is recognized.

You mentioned that your parents did not support your choice, they wanted you to work in agriculture like them. Maybe that's why it is important for you to support the youth?

I don't want to blame my parents. This is an expression of my love - I want to give choristers confidence in what they do. I want them to get what I lacked - encouragement, approval for my activities.

As a choir director you have to be autocratic, dictatorial. How do you combine dictatorship with gentleness and not break them? What helps the most? Did you learn this from your former teacher, the choir director?

My teacher taught me most of it. There will always be choristers who will disagree with whatever decision the manager makes. I learned from him that students generally know that I am working with all my heart to do what is best for them. It takes time for them to learn trust. If they learn to trust, then they are more willing to accept authority.

We often see in history that democracy leads to autocracy. Nowadays, we miss leaders, leaders like John Paul II or US President Reagan. What is your experience as a choir leader?

I aim for the youth of the choir to feel that they belong to the choir. Of course, I am a dictator, but in the daily routine, when there is no need to think about the worries of the trip, the responsibility for the non-musical concerns is taken by the responsible students who are elected. Nick Lopez, the vice president of the choir, chooses the leaders who come in and let me know if there are things I need to adjust.

How did you come up with the idea of holding concerts in the Baltic countries?

The history of the Baltic States and their geographical proximity to Russia made the choice more attractive. The Baltic countries support the Ukrainians. What better place than to come here and sing about peace, sing that peace will prevail? When presenting this trip to the choir, I used an excerpt from the documentary film "Singing Revolution" and talked about the history of the Baltic countries, the oppression experienced during the Tsarist and Soviet times. This is one small sign of solidarity with Ukraine. For us, this war is very real.

Why did you choose the themes of war and peace for the chorus?

Because of what's going on. Every year I choose a different theme. The music has to respond to the chosen theme, and there is enough good music for that. When choosing a topic, I try to respond to modern needs. Last year, after two years of the pandemic, I chose the theme "Hope". It was preceded by the theme "If I am weak, God, You are strong." I chose songs about strength and weakness. During the pandemic, we felt more vulnerable. We questioned how long this could last.

Do you regret coming to the Baltic countries?

The trip was amazing! I am very grateful for the opportunity to expose my students to the history and culture of the Baltic countries. And as a musician, a performer, I am extremely grateful for such a receptive audience, I felt truly honored.

Dear Megan Tatro, what are your impressions as a chorister from your trip to the Baltic countries - Vilnius, Kaunas, Trakai, Kryžiu kalnas, Riga, Piarnu, Tallinn and concerts in Vilnius, Kaunas, Riga and Tallinn?

I have never had so many "encounters" with your story, especially the information about oppression that shocked me. We learned a lot and deeply about the Holocaust, but your story was never discussed in history lessons!

Dear Nick Lopez, what are your impressions as the vice president of the choir?

For me, one of the strongest moments was seeing that music can overcome the borders of different cultures and continents. Music is for everyone, no matter what language you speak, what race or ethnicity you belong to. I am convinced that the power of music touches hearts, which made this trip special. Some listeners didn't know what we were singing about, but they understood the message we were sending.

Were you satisfied with the attention shown to you?

In America, we never get such a warm welcome as here!

Despite being shy, slow to show emotions?

Adam Potter: Isn't that ironic? We Americans are cocky, extroverts lazy to flatter ourselves, and the audience reception here was exceptional! We felt privileged to see music transcend culture.

MT: Our need is to sing and share it with listeners. In America, we get a weak reaction after concerts, so we even ask ourselves: "Why are we doing this at all?!" We are happy to have had the opportunity to come to you, share our emotions, hear your suffering, feel gratitude. It all inspired me as a musician.

NL: I have never seen or experienced such reactions to our concerts as here. It melted my heart to see that there are people living here who love, love music, that this art form is important to them.

Which concert is successful for you?

Adam Potter: I felt at home as a conductor. Before I became a conductor, I was a pianist, and every time I had to perform, I experienced nervous tremors, I had no opportunity to evaluate my performance. As a conductor, I feel when a concert I conduct has succeeded and when it has succeeded less.

What is most important to you during a concert: performance quality or knowledge, conveying the depth of the topic or both?

AP I can tell in advance when a gig is going to fail, but I can't tell when a gig is going to be good. Artists know when we're not ready. But sometimes even when they are ready, mistakes happen or the performers are not focused, sometimes it's not their fault, they can be overworked or suddenly sick. Then there is no good result.

NL: We spend three to four months preparing for each program. The progress from the first rehearsal to the first concert is huge. Preparation time determines success more than the concert itself, it only shows me what I can improve.

AP: Sometimes I like to refer to Aristotle's saying: "Perfection is not an act, it's a habit." We will not be ready, we will not have successful concerts without many months of preparation for them.

Then you will never be ready? 

AP At some point, we have to go on stage. Famous American musician Leonard Berstein has said that inspiration is a combination of hard work and not enough time.

Did the Roberts Choir under your leadership perform in other countries as well?

AP Part of the students who came to the Baltic countries performed in France. During my studies, I performed in France, Spain, and Italy.

Could you compare how you were received in the Baltic and other countries?

AP I had an amazing experience in all these countries, but the audience here, especially in Lithuania, is second to none, I don't remember experiencing anything like that in other countries. Memorable concerts were only in Rouen and Baji (France). Perhaps the inhabitants of Normandy and the Baltic countries have a similar character. Normandy was occupied by the Germans, but the memory of their time has faded. The Baltic people have experienced great pain and difficult trials, so they are more able to appreciate goodness, truth, and beauty, while people who have not experienced this take it for granted. Maybe the Americans are less enthusiastic, they can appreciate what we are doing, but they are satisfied with themselves.

The French, Germans, Italians are also satisfied with themselves.

Yes it is true.

NL: I was still studying, when our choir toured Europe, I had the opportunity to perform in Toronto as well. Concerts in Lithuania surpassed the experience in this largest Canadian city a hundredfold. The reception here, the hospitality shown throughout the trip - an absolutely wonderful, eye-opening experience! This experience makes me feel that I am a part of your culture. That's what made the trip so special.

Did you feel safe in the Baltic countries?

AP: 100 percent! First of all, I wouldn't have brought a group of students if I wasn't absolutely sure that the Baltic countries were safe. This was confirmed by our concert tour.

For you, Megan Tatro, how was the audience here different from the US listeners?

The program is the same, but the feeling about the performance is never the same. The audience here is warmer, even during a few seconds break between songs I could feel the inner warmth of the audience. I've had this sense of togetherness for a long time. When I perform in America, I don't feel it, or not as strongly. Here I experienced the feeling that we are all one, that the listeners are singing and chanting with us with their hearts, that we are sharing the same experience, and it is magical!

NL: I think that when performing at home, in the USA, one of the difficulties is that we are similar, we live in the same culture, so the transmitted message is not as deeply received as when performing Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian songs. We performed most of the songs and hymns in English. Our songs could seem repetitive. By performing your songs, we could feel the depth of your culture. This is the best, most important experience on this trip.

MT: The diversity of the musical program selected by choir director Adam Potter is very important, which helps to learn about other cultures, songs and music of other countries. It is extremely important for the performer.

You had to pay for travel and accommodation. Why was it important for you to come here?

NL: Will I not have a similar opportunity to come to the Baltic countries? I'm 21 years old, I'm still at the beginning of my life, I'll start teaching soon, when, if not now, is the best time to travel and get to know other cultures? That was the main reason I wanted to come here. I had also heard about the musical tradition of the choirs of these countries, so I was sure that the audience should like it. And so it was, I absolutely do not regret my decision.

MT: I have always wanted to learn, and the best way to learn is to "immerse" in a culture. Five years ago, I had the opportunity to sing with a choir in France and it was a life-changing experience because it was the first time I traveled outside of the US with a choir to sing in the freshly burned Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. We felt the pain of her community, we grieved with them. Choir director Adam Potter has written a special piece of music to commemorate the tragedy. I wanted to continue traveling and learning. I never wanted to look at the world from one point of view. It is not enough for me to be an American, to live comfortably. I always want to be challenged, feel uncomfortable because of the language barrier. Inconvenience redeems, returns to a greater degree. It's magical and I never wanted to stop halfway.

What would you wish for yourself, for Roberts Wesleyan University, for those who create and perform music, what would you wish for the Baltic countries?

NL: Always learning no matter what age you are and being the best. We are Americans, we have performed in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, but above all we are people and we can learn together. The flame of learning is very important, especially in music, art. I can give this advice to anyone, whether they are into music or work in another field.

MT: I think that especially for Americans, for our university, the connection between cultures is very important. We talk a lot about cross-cultural diversity, but it's not always possible to go out and experience it. It is important to send students abroad, to create conditions. I would encourage young people, especially Americans, to get out of their comfort zone and seek intercultural connections. We humans all seek peace and we can't achieve it because we are consumed by fear, we constantly refuse to feel uncomfortable because we are "stuck". By traveling, opening up to other cultures, we can become better.

University professor, former opera soloist Constance Fee: Music is a universal language, when you sing together, as we saw in the documentary The Singing Revolution, the connection is very strong. This cannot be achieved by speaking alone. Everyone should sing along, the song is powerful and impactful. Don't lose faith, don't lose hope. I think that the world is proud of what the Baltic countries have achieved, it is an example for all of us. You fought without fighting. You defended what you had to defend. We all pray and hope that you will remain free and safe and that all of Ukraine will be independent again. Your example inspires the rest of the world. I've never seen that before. I saw a lot of tanks, guns, bombs, but to stand up and sing together! We didn't have to worry about our freedom. But now we started to worry, in America. We are no longer free to speak the way we used to speak. I think it is very important for young people to know what others have given their lives for. It is very strong.

Why did you want to come to the Baltic countries?

Because I had never been, I lived in France from 1990-1991, that is, I was on the other side of the street! I wanted to see it with my own eyes. Everything here is much more than I expected. Much more beautiful countries than I expected. I'm so happy I could come.

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