University of Pittsburgh

front page

Song of Friendship

Written by Cara J. Hayden

Temple of Heaven

Temple of Heaven

At a concert hall in Beijing, the director of Pitt’s Heinz Chapel Choir raised his arms and gave the first cues for “Fengyang Song,” a Chinese folk tune. The choir breathed in and sang in Mandarin. Immediately, the audience recognized the tune and applauded vigorously. The choir, unaccustomed to hearing clapping during the middle of their performances, was surprised and pleased. While conducting, Director John Goldsmith silently mouthed the word “wow.”

Pitt’s choir felt relieved by the warm applause. This concert at Beijing National University was the first of many on a two-week tour of six Chinese cities in May, and everyone had been a little nervous about how they’d be received.

Earlier in the day, the 51 students in Pitt’s prestigious choir had packed in a full schedule of sightseeing—from the stadiums of the 2008 Olympics to the Summer Palace where Chinese royalty once vacationed. The choir goes on international tours every three years. This was the first tour to Asia.

Timothy Parenti, a tenor in the choir and a senior chemical engineering major, had fun exploring Beijing with his friends. Later that night he would post photos and commentary about the day on a blog for Pitt’s music department. But while he was singing at the concert, he felt a new kind of excitement. With the crowd clapping during the folk tune, he felt a connection, a link with people who speak a different language and lead different lives on the other side of the globe.

“Singing gave the trip substance and meaning,” he later explained. “We really spoke, in a way, through the medium of music.”

When Pitt’s choir finished its program, a Chinese choir that had performed earlier came onstage. They wore tuxedos and gowns with red tassels draped around their necks. To everyone’s surprise, the Chinese singers offered their tassels to the Pitt singers. Parenti held his gift with wonderment as someone explained that the tassels were tied in knots symbolizing friendship.

That night at dinner, some of the Pitt students had changed from their concert attire into their street clothes. Yet as they gathered around tables and picked up vegetables, fish, and rice with their chopsticks, they all wore the same accessory around their necks: red friendship tassels.