On June 21, 1970, accompanied by Harold Aks, our conductor, and his wife, Pat, a group of SLC women set out for England to begin the SLC Chorus European Concert Tour 1970, one of many such tours in Mr. Aks’s tenure. From June 22 to July 27 we performed in England (Christ’s College and the Leys School in Cambridge; the Aldeburgh and Cheltenham Festivals; Heathfield School in Ascot; St. Paul’s Girl’s School; Battle Abbey Church; Westminster Abbey); Italy (Asolo); Israel (in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and at the Ayeleth Hasachar Kibbutz near the Golan Heights); and in Switzerland in St. Gallen.
Our concert dress, in most cases homemade by our mothers from a Simplicity pattern, was light blue polyester with an Empire waist. (Alison Brown ’72 donated hers to the SLC archives.) We hated the dress. A memo from Pat Aks entitled “Wardrobe” instructed us to pack “1 garter belt, no full petticoats: girdle only if absolutely necessary” and we were warned to “avoid bringing large [hair] rollers....They take up a terrifying amount of space.”
Within each country we traveled by bus, accompanied by our guide, Stephen, a handsome, young and charming graduate of Cambridge who worked for the concert manager. He immediately fell in love with Diane Kacich ’72, much to our despair, since he was the only man on the tour. I always sat with my roommate, Barbara Thornton ’72. When we weren’t rehearsing on the bus (a perfectionist with a great sense of humor, Mr. Aks—or “Aksey,” as we called him—used every free moment to rehearse) we gossiped and talked endlessly about our love interests, Jon Fast ’71 (Barbara) and Juan Dandridge (me).
We sang beautifully. Our program, memorialized on 33 1/3 r.p.m. vinyl in my collection, included Italian and English madrigals, Debussy’s “Salut Printemps,” contemporary pieces by faculty members Joel Spiegelman and André Singer, Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols” (which we performed for Britten’s lover, Peter Pears) and “Mountain Nights” by Kodaly.
We slept in dorms, private homes, in hotels and on a kibbutz. We were chased by lustful young men in Rome and Jerusalem. We were given whirlwind tours of London, Rome (including an evening at the opera at the Baths of Caracalla), Florence, Old Jerusalem (still a Muslim city in those days), Bethlehem, Jericho, the Dead Sea, Rammalah, Nablus, Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, Haifa, Tel Aviv.
I don’t remember the food. In November 1970, the head of the Bar-Ilan School in Kfar Saba, Israel, wrote to “the Principal, Sarah Lawrence College.” “I had the great pleasure of being present at the opening concert of the Israel Festival in Jerusalem, where your girls appeared,” he wrote. “My friends and I sat open-mouthed. Never have I heard a school-choir of that calibre! Never have I seen a conductor of that kind! A wizard of some sort .... But that was not all. A couple of days after that wonderful experience we met your girls (and Mr. Aks) in the streets of Jerusalem—and started to compliment them .... As ‘reward’ we were given a free concert at the Hebrew University grounds at about 11 p.m. .... And then I was even more thrilled: not by the beautiful singing alone; the love of singing and being led by as wonderful a man as Mr. Aks; and above everything else: their quiet, cultured way of behaving, talking to people, their simple ‘moral’ dress. As an educator I am anxious of the behavior of youth nowadays, here as everywhere else in the world. How refreshing was it to see that there is also a different kind of youth!”
The women in our chorus who shared a love of Mr. Aks and the music became a very successful and diverse group—doctors (Joanne Kurtzberg, Diana Dixon, Barbara Zucker), lawyers (Susan Cohen, myself), writers (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Tessa DeCarlo), professional musicians. Barbara Thornton stayed in Switzerland at the end of the tour and became an internationally acclaimed early music performer and scholar. She died a few years ago of a brain tumor.
In 1998 at reunion we celebrated Aksey in an open rehearsal in Reisinger. The sound was heavenly, and Aks loved seeing us all again in one place. He died two years later. He was a wizard, and we will never forget him. Our concert dress, in most cases homemade, was light blue polyester with an Empire waist. We hated the dress.
Barbara Kolsun is senior vice president and general counsel at Kate Spade, and has been a member of the Sarah Lawrence Board of Trustees since 1999.