HARTFORD – They literally sang for their Lenten supper.
On the evening of Good Friday, the 30 members of Vocal de Cámara Platense delighted listeners with impromptu sacred songs and contemporary Latin music following a Lenten dinner that was provided and served by the Cathedral Knights of Columbus at Bishop’s Hall behind the Cathedral of St. Joseph.
Without instrumentation, the visiting choir from Argentina filled the hall with a powerful and glorious sound, casually singing in Spanish from wherever they were sitting or standing, to express their gratitude to the cathedral Knights for providing them with a Lenten meal and to thank all those at the cathedral who welcomed them during their week-long stay in Hartford.
"We are astonished,” said Fernando Tomé, choirmaster for Vocal de Cámara Platense. “We are having a great time — a beautiful experience, especially with the people.”
He added, “Argentinean people who don’t know American people think they are cold. South Americans, we are touchy and talkative, but in the end we are similar.
At the Good Friday dinner, the singers of Vocal de Cámara Platense were treated to a meal of stuffed flounder, vegetarian lasagna, pasta and salads, all served by members of the Knights. Other dinner guests included Ezequiel Menéndez, cathedral director of music and organist, as well as some parishioners from the cathedral and members of its two choirs.
Menéndez invited the Argentinean choir to the United States, referring to them as “wonderful.” He said it was “an honor” to host them, especially since many of the choir’s members are from his hometown of LaPlata, Argentina.
Conversely, Tomé said of Menéndez, “At first, I admired him because he is a very famous organist in our country. We met at a concert three or four years ago and he invited us.”
Vocal de Cámara Platense is a voice chamber group that performs both with and without instruments. Comprising 30 singers, the choir has been touring since its inception in 1999. Most of its members are from La Plata or Buenos Aires and belong to other professional music groups, or are music teachers or conductors. Tomé has led the group since its founding.
At their initial meeting several years ago, Menéndez suggested to Tomé that Holy Week would be the perfect time for the Argentinean choir to visit the cathedral. So during Holy Week of this year, Vocal de Cámara Platense joined with the Cathedral Schola Cantorum and the Cathedral Youth Choir for an especially harmonious and prayerful sound, singing hymns, chants and songs at the many liturgies held last week.
The three choirs performed under the direction of Menéndez with Tomé serving as choirmaster. The three choirs presented sacred musical works by Lotti, Byrd, Elgar, Mozart, Thompson, Bock and Allegri.
Vocal de Cámara Platense was presented as part of the cathedral’s Sacred Sounds Concert Series.
“It’s been really wonderful for a few days to have the three choirs together,” Menéndez said at the dinner. “Between them they make a wonderful sound and they are learning from each other. [Together] they have the perfection of an American choir and the enthusiasm of a Hispanic choir.”
Tomé also enjoyed the unique blend. “The choirs are very good and complimentary,” he said. “They [the cathedral choirs] have some skills we don’t, and we have the others.”
The Argentinean group’s Hartford visit was part of a larger tour that involved more than a dozen performances total in Hartford, Boston, New York City, and Newark, Delaware.
The Argentineans did a bit of sightseeing during their tour, which began with their arrival in the United States on March 18 and departure on April 4. For nearly all choir members and Tomé, it was their first time in America. However, three singers said they had visited years ago as participants in youth choirs that were invited by Menéndez.
A boat tour on the Connecticut River and dinner at the Hartford Club in Hartford proved to be the highlight of the Hartford stay, according to several members of the choir. The special day was sponsored by Frederick Conard and his wife Pattilynn.
Choir members said they were also amazed by two well-outfitted public schools they visited, specifically Newton North High School in Newton, Massachusetts and A.I. Prince Technical High School in Hartford. Prince in Hartford and its students made the strongest impression.
“They had a recording studio and a culinary class,” said Julia Arzuaga, 37, one of the Argentinean singers. “The students made us tea and cakes.
Other groups rolled out the welcome mat, hosting lunches and dinners to support the Argentinean choir’s stay. In addition to the Cathedral Knights, the Conards, and Prince Tech students, meals were provided by the parents of the Cathedral Youth Choir, members of the Cathedral Schola Cantorum, the Menéndez family and Father James Shanley, in his role as rector of the cathedral.
“The parish community and the archdiocese have been wonderful in supporting the project,” Menéndez said.
After most of the dinners, the Vocal de Cámara Platense serenaded their hosts in Spanish.
“We sang some tangos,” Tomé said. “American people love that.”