Monday, September 6, 2010


This is an account of a concert that began in chaos and ended in glory. Or perhaps it's simply a lesson in perception.

Nancy and I spent a week in mid-July touring Costa Rica with the Carolina Master Chorale, sight-seeing and singing. (Well, not all of us sing; some carry the music or pack the suitcases.) The Chorale's first concert was to start at 8 p.m. at the Colegio Tecnico Profesional Agropecuario Santa Elene de Monteverde. As nearly as I can determine, the Colegio is the equivalent of a state's “Aggie School,” and is concerned with stock-breeding. We saw no stock, but breeding seems to be going well: the average age of the audience was about nine.

On the evening of the concert, our tour bus, “Marco Polo,” lumbered through a rather showy rainstorm, up hill and down potholes. The singers had changed from their usual tacky-tourist outfits into somber black performance garb. Most of us water-carriers tried to be commensurately drab. When we finally pulled up to the venue, rain had filled all gutters and gullies, and the drab factor shot up as we stumbled out into the deluge. The tour company, professionally familiar with Costa Rica, handed each of us an industrial-sized umbrella, and we sloshed through the puddles to a wide doorway.

As we dripped our way through the barn-like doors, applause and shouts and cheers poured over us, as abundant as the rain. The crowd stood up, waving and smiling. Surprised at this warmer-than-usual welcome, I blew kisses as boldly as any actual singer. We were led to several rows of folding chairs set at right angles to the audience. In a back seat with other auxiliary travelers (some wives, a husband or two, one teen-aged son), I had time to survey our “concert hall.”

It most resembled an indoor rodeo arena, or possibly the site of cattle and farm machinery auctions. The walls and roof were tin or aluminum, the floor unadorned concrete, and set up on the longer side of the rectangular space were four tiers of wooden bleachers. The audience in the bleachers numbered around one hundred, but there was, all through the evening, much activity by spectators not seated in the bleachers, or anywhere else. In general atmosphere and continued flow of humanity, the place seemed much like a community softball park on a Saturday morning.

Directly behind the Chorale's seats there must have been a kitchen, for people came and went continually with paper plates of pico de gallo (rice-and-beans) and cans of Coke (the lovely, sugar-sweetened, high-octane Coke no longer available stateside). An ongoing sound effect from that direction was regular giggling and chatting of teen-aged girls.

In my experience, the Carolina Master Chorale is accustomed to being the star attraction on its programs, except for an occasional famous soloist. On this particular Costa Rican evening, however, we discovered that the CMC was only part of the show.

Before the Chorale sang, a cadre of the teen-aged girls presented themselves; and, to canned music managed by a cool disc jockey who also manipulated colored lights flitting across the far wall, they gave us a vigorous and highly limber exhibit of what I would call a pole dance, except that instead of poles, they used folding chairs. Yards of sleek dark hair swirled and snapped as they performed the graceful, sexy contortions of the dance. They concluded to cheers, shouts, and much applause.

After a leisurely pause, the same girls came back with partners in white pants and blue and white shirts to do some more fancy footwork, not quite so limber as the chair dances and somewhat less, um, personal.

Then the Master Chorale's director, Tim, stood up and made a polite speech to the crowd, his every few words being translated by Juve, the tour guide, like an echo as he spoke. Much applause, cheers, and then the Chorale stood in two half-circles and prepared to sing. I waited for the usual hush to fall.

It fell not.

Throughout the concert, the teen-aged girls directly behind me continued to talk and giggle. Some got plates of pico de gallo and sauntered casually to the bleachers to share spoonfuls with family members. In the bleachers, older women chatted and fingered the fancy costumes of smaller girls, who squirmed and repeatedly smoothed their full, shiny red, green, and gold skirts. Little boys were constantly in motion. One fellow, about eighteen months old and mostly steady on his fast little feet, repeated his personal game throughout the concert. He would skitter away from his mother, make a wide circle to within a few feet of the performing singers, take a sharp turn and race towards the open doors, where the rain was still drumming down. I feared for his safety outside in the dark, wet night. But always, at the very last moment, he veered right and swooped back to his mother, who had been calmly preoccupied with a large casado of rice, beans, cabbage, chicken and fried plantains.

The lack of focused attention, the continued talking, the rambling to and fro of adults and children alike brought me to a smoldering snit. Where was the famous Tico politeness? If I had known the Spanish for “HUSH UP!” I would have hissed it at the teens standing just a few feet behind me. But the only Spanish synonym I knew translated as “Shut up!” and as a guest, I wasn't prepared to sink to that level of rudeness.

I started to get a faint glimpse of the cultural difference involved when I followed the actions of a tiny fellow surely no more than three, playing soccer by himself with a small, empty paper cup. He started on the edges of the arena, but had no compunctions about following his “ball” wherever it went. He was astoundingly good at his game; he never missed a kick, and never really halted or slowed as he ran after the cup. Timing and aim, not to mention vigor, would have made a twelve-year-old proud. He moved nearer and nearer to the performing artists, not by intent but merely as the game led him. Finally I saw a man get up from the crowd and approach the boy. I foresaw a quick scooping up of the child, or a firm shake and a scolding. But no. The man gently took the child's arm, and guided him towards the sidelines, pointing, but then left him to carry on. Hmmmm. A tiny light flickered on somewhere in the back of my mind.

The Chorale, calm and on key, went through its classical program without, apparently, being distracted by the noise, the milling, running, tumbling, eating, entering and exiting, and general socializing. Myself, I was distracted. At one point, I watched as a group of children nearby arranged and re-arranged half a dozen folding chairs according to several scenarios. First, one row of chairs was pulled very close to the other, and six little girls seated themselves cosily, each placing her legs up on the seat of another girl's chair, for greater chumminess. They smoothed their skirts and chatted nicely, playing visiting mamas, perhaps. When I again glanced in that direction, the six chairs had been lined up as in a bus, and in the front seat, one boy was portraying a serious, in-charge driver, while the others, boys and girls, sat mimicking adult propriety.

Why was no attempt made to control the children and keep the noise down at least a few decibels? I couldn't understand it. Costa Rica has a rich international background and a sophisticated history of the arts. Most Ticos (Costa Ricans) have experience of cultural performances at a high level in the capital of San Jose. I sat in my back row, sighing and frowning like the wet hen I was. The tiny light didn't illuminate much, yet.

When the Chorale finished singing, I gathered water bottles and umbrellas, ready to depart. But no. More young people took center stage and performed more dances. From the sidelines, little girls in blazing satin dresses came up and twirled with delight, clearly enjoying their long-awaited few minutes of fame. The DJ, Jove-like, put forth one relaxed hand, and rainbows of colored lights swirled around the building. Then, at a word from the older dancers, a great flock of small Ticos raced to the center, and an unscheduled lesson in line dancing began. My photos show that the small children, some no more than four, were attentive and agile, mimicking the steps of the older youth very well indeed.

The beat picked up. A lovely young teen-ager shot out of the chorus line and approached one of the baritones in the Master Chorale. Startled but game, Tom removed his jacket and joined her in a disco dance. More men were enticed. Then the teen-aged Tico boys got their courage up and invited assorted sopranos and altos to exercise more than their vocal cords. The bleachered audience was delighted, applauding and calling out encouragement to the game norteamericanos.

Now small costumed folk began to appear beside my chair. Pointing at my camera, they smiled and raised their eyebrows. After I snapped one little hombre, he looked at the picture of himself and pointed excitedly across to the bleachers. So I took the camera and showed his mother a picture of her child. He seemed satisfied. Now more flocked up, small muchachas posing with aplomb, holding out their great glittering skirts, and flashing poster-girl smiles. All around the arena, little boys and girls had politely asked the visitors to dance with them or pose for pictures, shake hands or share a paper cup of mango juice. It all swirled together-- noise, music, laughter, lights, fractured Spanish and softer, heavily accented English.

I had been to many performances of the Carolina Master Chorale, including some in the great cathedrals of Europe. But this one was unique and most wondrous, and I finally saw it for what it was: a true community concert—from the word “concert,” meaning, among other things, together.

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