When In Rome

UNC Chamber Choir

UNC's Chamber Choir poses in front of the Vatican before singing five songs during a mass in St. Peter's Basilica. Related: slide show at end of story

Photo courtesy of Jill Burleson Burgett

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UNC's Prima Voce Chamber Choir performs Palestrina's "Sicut Cervus," one of the songs they performed during a March 17 mass at the Vatican.

UNC's Chamber Choir spent spring break in Italy singing in the annual Festival of Peace and Brotherhood. They did a little sightseeing and sang at a variety of venues in and near Rome, including a unique one they were invited to and one they weren't.

The unique venue they were invited to was St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, where the choir sang five songs during a St. Patrick's Day mass. The songs, which had to be pre-approved by the Vatican's maestro di cappella (music director), included one composed by music composition major Patrick Rooney.

Covering an area of almost six acres, with a 440-foot-tall dome that dominates the skyline of Rome, St. Peter's is the largest church in the world.Jill Burgett

Choir director Jill Burleson Burgett said the mass took place at the end of a long, wide center aisle in the domed area of the basilica, with the choir standing in an area to the left of the altar.

"The fascinating aspect … was the way that their sound was picked up by the dome and transported back to the very entrance of the structure with pristine clarity; delicate, clean, and nuanced, yet at the same time filling the space," Burgett said. "The sound was transmitted effectively to every corner of the massive structure."

Graduate vocal performance student Melynie Campbell agreed with Burgett's assessment.

"The acoustics were amazing," Campbell said. "The way we came together as a group touched us as well as the listeners. I don't know if I have words that can express how it felt."

She estimated that about 500 people attended the mass. Pope Francis wasn't among them.

The unique venue that the choir wasn't invited to sing in but did was a church in Palestrina, an ancient city about 20 miles east of Rome and the site of the choirs' final performance of the trip.

It was also the home of 16th century composer Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina, who composed some of the songs the choir selected to perform that evening, so after concluding their performance at a local hall, they went in search of the church where the influential sacred music composer was organist.

Finding the church open and unoccupied, the group decided to take advantage of the opportunity and began singing.

"What was special about Palestrina?" Burgett asked rhetorically. "Singing the music of Palestrina, in Palestrina, in the church where he served prior to his appointment to the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's in Rome. For a chamber choir to sing their repertoire in the places and spaces where they were originally conceived and performed is an unforgettable experience -- truly an experience of a lifetime. There is nothing in the U.S. to compare. "

Nicole Steketee, a senior Music Education major, was keenly aware of the special nature of the unscheduled performance.

"We really didn't have an audience," she remembered. "We had our tour guides and a couple of parents that were on the trip, but I will never forget it. As a future choir teacher, this was the nerdiest, coolest music experience I could have and it's something that I want to sooner or later give my students an opportunity to experience."

Campbell said the trip as a whole, which included seven performances and sightseeing when time permitted, was life-changing.

"It was a truly tremendous experience," she said. "We learned so much."

And Burgett said the trip changed the choir as a whole.

"For the UNC Chamber Choir, traveling to Italy and performing was like finding the missing piece that completed us," she said. "It was like finding our musical homeland, our musical heritage. It was an unforgettable experience."