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Hendricks Chapel Choir, Syracuse University Wind Ensemble Pay Tribute to Pan Am 103 Victims on UK Performance Tour
This past spring, the voices of members of the Hendricks Chapel Choir and the notes played by the Syracuse University Wind Ensemble floated through various spaces in the United Kingdom—from urban St. Paul’s Church in London’s Covent Garden, to rural Tundergarth Church and the town hall in Lockerbie, Scotland, to the majestic space of St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland.
These performances had a special meaning for the musicians and their directors—they were a way to pay tribute to the 270 people lost in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie on Dec. 21, 1988. Among those lost were 35 students returning home after a semester abroad through Syracuse University’s Division of International Programs Abroad (now Syracuse Abroad).
The tour, planned by the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) in the lead up to the tragedy’s 35th anniversary, was meant to honor those who were lost in the bombing, strengthen the bonds that have grown between Syracuse and Scotland in the ensuing years, and give the student musicians the experience of an international tour.
Planning and curating the remembrance tour began in the summer of 2021 with a conversation between Milton Laufer, associate professor and director of VPA’s Setnor School of Music, and Bradley Ethington, professor of applied music and performance (conducting) and Timothy Diem, assistant professor of applied music and performance (conducting), about meaningful performance experiences for the wind ensemble.
“They suggested curating a performance centered around the 35th anniversary of the Flight 103 bombing during 2023—that the numeric significance of the year and the number of students we lost that fateful day should be memorialized somehow,” Laufer says.
After conversations with college and University leadership and with Hendricks Chapel Choir Director Jose “Peppie” Calvar and Dean Brian Konkol, and extensive planning by Setnor School administrators Michelle Taylor and Megan Carlsen, the tour was born. The trip was made possible with the support of Chancellor Kent Syverud; Vice Chancellor Provost and Chief Academic Officer Gretchen Ritter and Trustee Judith Greenberg Seinfeld ’56.
“Two concurrent tours of two distinct ensembles; six concerts in three cities at five venues culminating in Lockerbie over the course of eight days. After nearly two years of planning, the day finally came for us to depart,” Laufer says. “I was overcome with emotions throughout the trip—from hearing these incredible students perform beautifully in venues of historical consequence to experiencing the Remembrance Garden alongside them. It was one of the most deeply personal and beautiful, gratifying experiences of my life. I could not have been prouder.”
The Hendricks Chapel Choir, 35 members strong, was led by Calvar, associate professor of applied music and performance (conducting) and assistant director of choral activities in the Setnor School. The Wind Ensemble, 65 members strong, was directed by Ethington and Diem. Anne Laver, associate professor of applied music and performance (organ) and University organist, and Joseph Ossei-Little, a graduate student and Hendricks Chapel Organ Scholar, provided organ accompaniment to the choir.
Laufer; Michael Tick, dean of VPA; Dean Konkol; Elisa Dekaney, professor of music education and VPA associate dean for research, graduate studies and internationalization; and Taylor, assistant director for operations in the Setnor School and “tour mom,” also accompanied the group. Travel arrangements were facilitated by Kipling Tours.
The musical selections performed on the tour were carefully chosen. “Energy and Light,” a celebration of and a reflection on life, was specifically composed for the Wind Ensemble by Natalie Draper, assistant professor of music composition, history and theory in the Setnor School. The St. Paul’s performance was the piece’s European premiere.
“Such Splendor,” performed by the choir, was created by U.K.-based composer Cecilia McDowall, based on a poem written by Pan Am 103 victim and Syracuse student Nicholas Vrenios.
“The text happens to evoke significant meaning when contextualized with Pan Am 103,” says Calvar. “We are grateful to Elizabeth Vrenios, Nicholas’ mother, for her graciousness in allowing us to use this text. We hope the piece and our performance serve as a lasting monument to the Remembrance Scholars Program mission to ‘Look Back and Act Forward.’”
“Angels Rising,” a piece commissioned by the Setnor School and performed by the Wind Ensemble, was composed by prominent American composer Frank Ticheli.
“This work is composed as a deeply moving tribute to the memories of those whose lives were lost on that tragic day in 1988,” says Ethington. “It is a work of sorrow and of hope, a transcendent musical portrayal of the human condition and the beauty and fragility of life itself. This remarkable work will be forever associated with Syracuse University as it is performed around the world in the years to come.”
“Such Splendor” and “Angels Rising” were performed by the Hendricks Chapel Choir and Wind Ensemble, respectively, at the annual Remembrance Scholar Convocation, held in Hendricks Chapel on Oct. 20.
For Ronald Ditchek ’23, a member of the choir, the trip was especially poignant. Ditchek was one of three Remembrance Scholar alumni, including Micayla MacDougall ’22, G’23 and Tyler Youngman ’20, G’21, a Ph.D. student in the School of Information Studies, who performed as part of the Hendricks Chapel Choir (MacDougall also played the bassoon with the Wind Ensemble). During his year as a Remembrance Scholar, Ditchek represented Nicholas Vrenios and continues to do so.
One of Ditchek’s best memories of the trip is signing the book that was kept in a dedicated Remembrance room at Tundergarth Church. “Signing it meant so much to me because it represented how a piece of me was left in Lockerbie. It signified a vow as to my commitment to looking back and acting forward for the 270 lives lost on Pan Am Flight 103,” he says.
Ditchek says visiting the Pan Am Flight 103 memorial in Dryfesdale Cemetery in Lockerbie was another major moment. “I saw a new way of remembering. I was able to lay stones for people who were just like us and learn new stories about the SU students and other passengers who were on the flight,” he says. “When I paid tribute to the victims at the garden, I did everything: said prayers for the lives lost, told stories to other SU students about those who were on the flight and thought about how my experiences in Lockerbie should be told to others, so the legacies of those on the flight are not lost.”
Ben O’Connell, a graduate student in choral conducting in the Setnor School, says the trip left him speechless. “I can’t put to words the kindness and embrace we experienced from the people in Lockerbie. It is truly inspiring how welcoming and gracious the people are after all these years,” he says. “Seeing the memorials in person in the environment where the tragedy occurred put a true humanistic aspect that was missing from my experience with Remembrance Week, one that I wish all people could experience.”
O’Connell even found a personal connection to one of the victims, Colleen Brunner, who grew up in the same town as his mom.
Alie Fitt, an oboist in the Wind Ensemble, says she gained a deep appreciation for Remembrance Week and for the Syracuse students who represent the lives that were lost.
“When Dr. Ethington and Dr. Diem were preparing us to go abroad, we had many conversations about the importance of why we were going and the impact that this had on the Syracuse community. The true weight of the attack, though, didn’t really hit me until I was standing in front of the memorial in Lockerbie,” she says. “In that moment, I realized that these victims were the same age as me, enjoying college life and friends, and had goals and dreams just as I do. … Taking part in this Remembrance Tour was such a moving experience and one I will never forget.”
Joseph Ossei-Little, graduate student, Hendricks Chapel Organ Scholar and member of the Hendricks Chapel Choir, says the trip connected him on a personal level with the incident that happened nearly 35 years ago.
“Singing in Tundergarth Church, which overlooks the field where the nose cone of the plane fell that day, signified a true connection for me. I was able to share in their grief and comfort everyone present with my voice and music,” he says. Performing “Such Splendor,” he says, brought him to tears.
“It gave me that resolve, in my heart, that never again should such acts of violence be allowed to happen and how I, can in my small way, share kindness and love to make the world a better place,” Ossei-Little says.
Ben Vermilyea, a graduate student, trombonist and graduate associate conductor with the Wind Ensemble, says the whole week was an extremely powerful and moving experience. “I was fortunate enough to conduct one of the pieces at the concert in the Lockerbie Town Hall. It was amazing to feel the connection between the students and the audience in the room,” he says. “Even though we had never met before, we were bonded by the music being made in remembrance to the events of 35 years earlier. I have never had as powerful of a music making experience than I had performing in the Lockerbie Town Hall, particularly when we performed ‘Angels Rising.’”
The trip was the first experience of traveling outside of North America for percussionist and graduate student Alex Talerico G’24.
“The thing that stood out to me the most was just how accepting and friendly the people of Lockerbie were when we visited. The positive relationship between the town and the University was palpable and I was approached and accepted with open arms despite being a stranger to every person I met,” he says. “Performing musical works in Lockerbie Town Hall specifically dedicated to the tragedy was incredibly poignant and evoked feelings I’m not sure I’ll ever experience again.”
Allison Pasco, a graduate student in orchestral conducting and music education and a flutist, has long felt a connection to Remembrance. She grew up in Oswego, New York, with Remembrance Scholar alumnus Tyler Youngman. “The trip was one of the most special and memorable opportunities throughout my years at Syracuse,” she says.
Pasco had two prominent solos in “Angels Rising.” “It made me think of all of the Remembrance Scholars I have known throughout the years and of Lynne Hartunian and Colleen Brunner, the two SUNY Oswego students who were victims in the tragedy,” Pasco says.
“The Syracuse University Wind Ensemble’s concert tour of the United Kingdom with the Hendricks Chapel Choir was a remarkable and memorable experience for our students,” says Ethington. “The concerts in London, Lockerbie and Edinburgh were once-in-a-lifetime performances before enthusiastic audiences.”
“Our hosts in Lockerbie were gracious and welcoming, and our shared history in remembering the tragic events of December 1988 resonates from generation to generation,” he says.
Video by Nick Dekaney ’26, a broadcast journalism major in the Newhouse School and a member of the Hendricks Chapel Choir