KCC’s Choral Union departs for Ireland for first international tour

When Gerald Blanchard took the helm of Kellogg Community College’s┬áthree residential college ensembles eight years ago and decided to start a touring program, he asked his students how many of them had ever left Michigan and was shocked to see less than 10 percent raise their hands.

“That struck me in a very deep way, and I decided at that point that I needed to get my students out,” said Blanchard, professor of vocal music at KCC and director of the college ensembles. “We were singing this music that was created in these other places around the world, but yet we’d never seen any of those places. How could we relate to what the composers were thinking or seeing when they were writing these beautiful melodies?”

Blanchard eased his students into the touring program, taking the college’s Choral Union to Angola, Ind., for their first tour in 2006, with a repeat appearance the following year. In 2008 they went a little farther, with appearances in Ohio and Illinois (including Chicago) in addition to Indiana and Michigan. And two years after that they went even farther, completing an East Coast circuit that included stops in Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts, as well as in Holt and Ann Arbor here in the state.

Beginning today, Blanchard is taking his students farther than ever before, crossing the pond for the Music Department’s first international tour to Ireland July 4 through 10.

Happy voices

The Choral Union’s first international tour marks the 55th anniversary of the choral area at Kellogg Community College, which Blanchard said started with the Battle Creek Community College Choirs with just 12 singers back in 1956.

KCC itself was founded in 1956, and at the time was officially known as Battle Creek Community College. Marty Stilwell, director of library services at KCC, said the name was changed a few years later, and in 1959 students enrolled in fall semester classes attended Kellogg Community College for the first time.

Stilwell said the college’s early student newspaper, The Triad, produced a review covering the year 1956 that included a page dedicated to a Music Club, which later changed to a choir under the direction of Alfred G. Richards, who was also the music teacher at Battle Creek Central High School.

In the 1958-59 Triad review the singers are noted as the Battle Creek Community College Choir, Stilwell said, and Community College Choir was the name used when they performed at commencement ceremonies beginning with the first one in 1958.

“We’ve had happy voices singing here since the beginning,” Stilwell said.

The Community College Choir was conducted by Richards through 1963. Later choir directors included Harriet Batchelder (1964-66); Harold Burch (1967-68; it was at this time that the name Kellogg Singers first appears); Gordon Smith (1969-88); and a number of others.

Blanchard arrived at KCC in 2004, where he reinstituted the Choral Union in 2006 for that first out of town concert in Angola.

‘I never looked back’

Since the beginning of the choral area, choir members had occasionally taken trips to places like Grand Rapids or Lansing, and in the 1980s went as far as New York, Blanchard said, but never as part of an organized tour at multiple venues over a period of days.

That led to his organizing the regional and national tours, but left Blanchard wondering what to do next. In a successful program building momentum with each tour, an international tour seemed like the logical next step.

“I said, OK, we’re singing now, we’ve got a momentum going, we’ve got a tour program going, what can we do?” Blanchard said.

Blanchard, a professional singer, had made his European debut in Galway during a six-week tour of Ireland in 2000 with the Central Michigan University Chamber Singers, where he was a featured soloist. So he had connections in the country. And when checking into the logistics of the trip he discovered that Brooks Grantier, a former director of the Battle Creek Boychoir, was working as a representative with the travel company he had worked with on previous tours of England and Germany.

Blanchard called it a perfect connection.

“It was like I was guided to that country, just through conversations,” Blanchard said. “I was on board with Ireland and never looked back.”

The Concert Tour of Ireland

Blanchard said choir members have raised more than $29,000 to help fund the Choral Union’s Concert Tour of Ireland through free-will offerings held during their annual concerts and other community performances.

“Every penny that we raised for this concert, it came from our music making,” he said. “We didn’t sell a single piece of candy or cookies or wash any cars or anything like that. We gave concerts. And people from the community came out and supported us.”

Thirty-one individuals will travel as part of the tour’s entourage, including 21 members of the Choral Union. The concert program will open with a performance of “Irish Blessing” and will end with a piece called “Dulaman,” an Irish folk song, as arranged by David Mooney.

“It’s a gorgeous piece, but it’s all in Gaelic,” Blanchard said, laughing.

The tour will include an evening performance in Cork at the Church of the Descent of the Holy Spirit; participation as a choir in a morning worship service in Dublin at the historic St. Ann’s Church; and an evening concert at the Presbyterian Church of Malahide (the first Presbyterian church to be built in the Republic of Ireland). The final concert will be sponsored by the Enchiriadis Treis Choir of Malahide.

Blanchard called the trip a dream come true.

“I am proud of everybody that worked to make this happen, from our partners in the community to our faculty and staff to, of course, the students,” Blanchard said. “I am overwhelmed with the wonderful support that we’ve received.”

To view an embeddable video taken during a recent rehearsal for the Choral Union’s Concert Tour of Ireland, visit Kellogg Community College’s YouTube page at www.youtube.com/user/KelloggCommunityColl.

For more information about vocal/choral events including Kellogg Community College singers, visit www.kellogg.edu/performart/vocal/events.html.