Paducah, Ky., may not be the last place in America you'd expect to find a professional symphony orchestra but it's close.
In fact, with a population of less than 30,000, Paducah is the smallest city in America blessed with such a cultural treasure, according to John Williams, the president of the Paducah Symphony Orchestra and a baritone in its chorus.
Still, when the Paducah Symphony Chorus traveled to Eastern Europe this past June for five performances throughout Austria and the Czech Republic, audiences responded in a big way.
Williams, a broker with A.G. Edwards in Paducah, remembers the "extremely emotional response" of the audiences in general, yet there was one experience that stood out: a concert held in the United Protestant Church in Krabcice, Czech Republic, just outside of Prague.
"Halfway through the American hymns, the pastor who was sitting in the front row, puts his hands together in prayer and drops his head," Williams says. "At the end of the piece, he looks up. He is red-faced and crying. Then I look across the church and notice everybody is crying. They cried for the next 45 minutes."
Apparently, music brought two cultures together in an emotional union that spoken words could not hope to accomplish, Williams says.
At the conclusion of another performance, held in a spa town in the Austrian alps during the city's performing arts series, the audience applauded in unison - "rhythmically," Williams says. At that event, the chorus performed three encores and the director received 12 curtain calls.
The chorus also performed in the Cathedral of Salzburg "where Mozart and his daddy played," Williams says. "You kind of have a high holy moment there."
The group's performances were conducted in three parts each, featuring European Renaissance motets (sung a cappella in Latin); Early American hymns, such as "Amazing Grace"; and then "Spirituals," Williams says.
"When you go to Europe, you know what they want to hear," he says. "They want to hear our [American] music."
About half of the choral group's 80 members participated in the European tour. Although the Paducah Symphony Orchestra is made up of paid professional musicians, the chorus members are all volunteers. Williams' position as president is also a volunteer post.
His involvement in the organization takes up a considerable chunk of Williams' time. In particular, the chorus rehearses two hours each week for about nine months each year.
"There are few things adults do that are lifelong learning issues, outside of their careers," he says. "That's what this does for me. I know that for a period of time every week, I am out there learning. It makes me fresher than I would be if I were spending all Sunday afternoon reading Smart Money or some research."