European staycation: Choral groups grappling after cancelled performance tours


TPN file photo

The University of Pittsburgh Women’s Choral Ensemble performs at the Sounds of Pitt Homecoming Concert in Heinz Memorial Chapel in 2018.

By Charlie Taylor, Senior Staff Writer

Women’s Choral Ensemble is one of three Pitt choral groups that have cancelled plans to perform in Europe this spring and summer due to COVID-19, leaving ensemble president and senior Allison Breisinger without one last opportunity to perform with her friends of four years.

“We all worked our butts off to be able to make these tours happen this summer,” said Breisinger, a marketing major, “and it’s just a little sad to see our efforts be put on hold for a while.”

The students’ prep work included more than just rehearsing music. Women’s Choral Ensemble, Men’s Glee Club and Heinz Chapel Choir had each raised tens of thousands of dollars to help pay for their trips, in part via Engage Pitt campaigns. Now, they are faced with the question of how to best use what money they can get back from travel agencies.

The Heinz Chapel Choir had planned a tour of Denmark and Sweden from April 28 until May 10, including five performances and a workshop with Swedish conductor Helene Stureborg. According to director Susan Rice, the group received about $45,000 through its Engage Pitt page, a letter-writing campaign and a grant from the Heinz Endowments.

This money would have reduced the cost for each of the 47 students planning to attend by about half and allowed for additional expenses, like professional videography at one of the performances. Now that the trip is cancelled, Rice said she hopes HCC will pursue the same plans next spring, although she has not definitively rescheduled, since the University has suspended all travel until further notice.

“There’s nothing firm right now for our plans for next year,” she said, “but we hope it will be possible to just project forward on the same dates [next year].”

If it is able to reschedule, the choir will use this year’s funds to pay for the future performance tour. Rice said the group lost money on flight deposits, and she’s currently trying to negotiate a refund from the travel company. Even though HCC is losing money, it won’t be asking for additional funds to make up for those losses.

“We won’t do another fundraiser next year if we are able to reschedule,” Rice said. “because our donors were so generous with us this year. It’s unreasonable to ask for an additional fundraising effort.”

Men’s Glee Club — which raised about $22,000 between Engage Pitt, private donations and ticket sales — is also trying to get its money back from the travel agency and reschedule its trip for next year, according to director Richard Teaster. With the recent surge in cancellations, however, travel agencies are suffering, which Teaster said he felt was a factor preventing him from receiving a full refund.

“The travel business in Europe is pretty bad right now,” he said. “Because of all these [travel agencies] losing money, they’ve been very difficult in refunding all of our money back.”

The Glee Club tour would have taken place in northern Italy, Austria and Slovenia, during the same two weeks as the HCC trip. Composer Manolo Da Rold had invited the group to perform in his hometown of Mel, Italy — but according to Teaster, because of the severity of the outbreak in northern Italy, the club had begun by the end of February to reroute the tour to stop in Croatia instead.

“We proposed a new version of the tour based on what was going on in Italy,” said Teaster, “and then we were waiting on hold until we got the letter from the Chancellor [ending all University travel].”

The Women’s Choral Ensemble had a shorter itinerary for its trip to San Sebastian, Spain — just one week of workshops and performances from June 17 to 24, according to Breisinger. She said the $10,065 that the ensemble raised through Engage Pitt will now go toward future tours, likely including a delayed version of the Spain trip.

Breisinger pointed out that although the money raised this year can still be used later on, many of the student performers specifically asked family members to donate in order to fund their experience. If those students were seniors, those donations won’t fund their tour even if they decide to participate as alumni — which the ensemble allows.

“[The seniors] will probably not see the benefit of that money in the future, because it doesn’t go toward alumni who decide to go on tour with us,” she said.

Despite the inconvenience, senior Iain Crammond, who serves as president of HCC, said he saw the cancellation of the tour as part of a necessary effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. According to him, in the grand scheme of things, the loss of an opportunity or a deposit is a very minor impact of the virus.

“We can also look around us and see how [the virus] has impacted other people’s lives in much more devastating ways,” said Crammond. “We have to be thankful that we’re able to take these preemptive steps to look out for our safety.”