June 4, 2009 — Brazil – the land of samba, bossa nova and a variety of other music traditions – played host in May to 44 members of the University of Virginia Marching Band.
The nine-day tour was the second international trip for the band. In 2007, they visited Fiji and Australia.
Band director William Pease said he tries to choose countries that students may not have visited with parents. He considers countries that will provide a rich cultural experience – and that have good concert halls.
Just hours after arriving in Rio de Janeiro, the students headed for the Candelaris Church, where they began rehearsing for that evening's concert.
"It was the most beautiful church I have ever seen," said tuba and sousaphone player Parker Miles, a rising third-year English major. "Ceiling to floor was covered in statues, murals and marble. The ceiling itself was painted depicting biblical scenes."
The students played to a standing-room-only crowd and performed the Brazilian national anthem for an encore.
"Afterward they asked us to play our national anthem, which was really special," said flute and piccolo player Abigail Heider, a rising second-year history and education major.
The audience sang along. "Some were singing the words, others were singing along with the notes of the melody; either way, it was very moving to see people from another country giving mutual tribute to our country and theirs," said alto saxophone player Nick Vallorano, a rising second-year history and pre-commerce major.
"I have never received an ovation as a performer like the one we were shown in Brazil. We ended up playing four or five encores, each of which was met with thunderous applause," Miles said.
The students mingled with the audience after the performance and signed autographs.
"Since U.S. college bands are so unfamiliar to the audience, they really got into it. Their excitement and applause was breathtaking," said tuba player Ali Khan, a fourth-year biochemistry major.
The performance was also broadcast live as part of a Saturday afternoon concert series in Brazil.
Music wasn't the only item on the program. Sightseeing in Rio included a trip up Corcovado Mountain, where the iconic image of Christ with outstretched arms crowns the summit. From there they enjoyed a 360-degree view of the city and Guanabara Bay below.
In Ouro Preto, a World Heritage site and the gold rush capital of country, located in the mountainous central region, a volleyball game between the marching band and Federal University of Ouro Preto students was a chance to mingle with young adults.
"The meeting with the university students was a really special experience. They waited three hours for a bus to come see us," Khan said.
Although the Brazilian students spoke little English, a game of volleyball and tossing a Frisbee and football around proved to be common platforms for communication.
"The language barrier was complete and immediately obvious, but by the end of the night we were all running around, laughing and having a good time," Miles said.
"They were as interested to learn about us as we were about them. They took lots of pictures and asked me about the sports that we play. Their excited faces were very comforting and really showed me that even though we live in completely different continents and have different cultures, we are very much alike," Khan said.
The next day, the U.Va. students had another chance to communicate – this time through music – with Brazilians in Ouro Preto. The concert took place in the Theatro de Ouro, the oldest theater in the Americas.
Vallorano was impressed that the mayor came to the concert and presented Pease and the band with a plaque memorializing the performance. "It was exciting to be making history for the Virginia band program in a place so steeped in history itself," he said.
"I'll always remember the performance we put on in Ouro Preto," Miles said. "The percussion players had a special feature called 'Fiesta Latina' that everybody in the band fell in love with at our first rehearsal. We couldn't help but dance in our seats when they played it."
The audience shared the band's enthusiasm as they jumped up, applauded and took photographs. "It felt like our show was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for them, and to bring that sort of excitement to people's faces is why I got into music in the first place," Khan said.
From Ouro Preto, the band flew to Manaus with a short stopover in the Brasilia, the modern capital of the country.
The stop in Manaus was the launching point for a guided trip on the Amazon River, with its exotic flora and fauna, and a visit to a rubber plantation.
Heider perhaps best sums up the experience. "I feel so blessed to have gone on this trip; it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience."