A small-town music teacher’s dream of peace

Performing "Earthsong" below a stained glass window called "Creation of Earth" in Prague.

“We never actually expect our dreams to come true!” exclaimed Rafael Reynaga, talking about the moment when the New Mexico Peace Choir’s director rounded a corner in a cathedral in Prague and came face to face with a stained glass window she had dreamed about three years earlier.

Many people dream of peace—but retired music teacher Christy Conduff dreamed of a peace choir. Her dream has now taken on a life of its own in an unlikely story so full of surprises no one would believe it if it were fiction.

About three years ago, Conduff said she woke in the middle of the night from what she called a “technicolor dream,” covered in goosebumps and with her hair standing on end.

After a career of 30 years as an elementary school music teacher, and more than 40 years directing church choirs, she had been mulling over the idea of starting some kind of choir, but wasn’t sure what form it should take. She was feeling burned out.

She dreamed that night of directing a choir underneath a glorious round stained glass window in Europe. “I truly can not explain it,” Conduff said. “I know what I felt, I know what I saw in my dream, and I know that I experienced it. I don’t know why.”

The New Mexico Peace Choir has only been in existence for a few years, and in fact as of this writing has only performed four “actual concerts,” Conduff said. Even so, the choir has drawn large crowds for each performance. The choir has about 90 singers.

Conduff didn’t want to do a religious choir, but describes herself as “a spiritual being to my core, who has been hurt in religion a lot.” She said, “If it’s not going to be about faith, or religion, … then the word peace came in. I had never heard of a peace choir but once the word hit, it was like, click. Of course.”

The choir is neither religious or political, steering instead toward songs of kindness, connectedness, caring for the Earth, “songs that touch the heart,” Conduff said.

With only a few concerts—along with some flash mobs and a performance to open the New Mexico state legislature this year—under its belt, the choir headed out to Europe to take part in the World Peace Choir Festival, held in Vienna, Austria.

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One of the festival’s founders was Ravi Shankar, who worked with the director of the Vienna Boys Choir, Gerald Wirth, and others to get it established.

This year about 15 choirs from around the world participated, including only one from the United States, the New Mexico Peace Choir. Even that was unlikely, but organizers were willing to allow Conduff’s choir to skip some of the requirements others had to follow, like making all of the rehearsals. When they arrived they discovered that theirs was the only adult choir in the festival this year, as every other, including the Vienna Boys Choir, were made up of children, many from Asian countries.

Denise Baccadutre is the Peace Choir’s accompanist, and herself was a choir teacher in Moriarty and Kansas before her retirement. She had stayed in touch with Conduff—who also taught music in the Moriarty-Edgewood schools before her retirement—and played piano for other choirs she directed.

“I love the Peace Choir because it is so diverse. We have different lifestyles, different religions, no religion,” Baccadutre said. Of the festival, she added, “If you can teach all of those children to sing together, then they can live together in peace. Other cultures, other religions, other languages—we can come together and enjoy that and we can do that, the world can get along. That has always been my belief.”

While the discovery of the stained glass window Conduff had dreamed was emotional and a powerful moment for the group, Baccadutre said she was even more touched by the festival, when all of the choirs together sang Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus. The children did not speak the same language, “but they were able to focus in to this Latin. It was just tears and goosebumps.” She added, “It was a small moment of time when we all just joined and became one. There was no language barrier, there was no ethnic barrier, there was no age barrier. We all joined and were just one in that moment.”

The group also sang at the American Embassy in Prague, in what Baccadutre said was also an impactful experience. As the only American choir at the festival, she said, “We represented that people are not necessarily the government. There’s so much good that’s never talked about. This is how we feel.”

The night before the festival, a buffet was put on for the choirs in attendance. The choirs sang to each other throughout the gathering. “The children loved us. At the buffet, here came this Taiwanese children’s choir to sing for us. They brought us little gifts. Then we sang for them. They were so excited to see us the next night, too.”

Reynaga had his own adventure in getting to Vienna. He works two jobs, and had his bag packed and in his car as he worked an overnight shift at a hotel in Albuquerque. His plan was to leave work straight for the airport.

Instead, he found his car had been broken into, and his luggage, which contained both his passport and his money for the trip, had been stolen. He thought he would not be able to go, and was trying to figure out how to break the news to Conduff as he spoke with police.

Meanwhile, the rest of the choir who were making the trip to Europe were at the airport, wondering where one of their basses was. Various members of the choir called and texted Reynaga from the airport as he filed his police report.

When he spoke to Conduff, “I told her everything was stolen, I don’t know what to do,” Reynaga said. “She said, ‘What do you have?’” He had his wallet, which included his ID and a copy of his passport. “She said, ‘Just get here, we will figure it out.’”

Reynaga’s roommate sped him to the airport, loaded down only with a backpack with a few clothes and almost no money. He didn’t know it, but Conduff was holding the airplane on the tarmac as the choir texted and spoke with him as he approached the gate.

The flight attendants were not too pleased with Conduff, who stood her ground in the loading area, waving her arms and shouting at Reynaga through the crowded airport to run. Others in the airport joined in, yelling out, “Rafa! Run! You need to run!” as his name was called out over the intercom.

He ran, and made the flight, red-faced and out of breath. As choir members on the plane burst into applause, another passenger remarked, “You must be a rock star!”

The plan was to get Reynaga to Atlanta, where he hoped to replace his passport in time to catch up with the group in Austria. They had taken up a collection for him on the plane, pooling together nearly $600.

In Atlanta, the group took some time for a flash mob performance in the airport before they parted ways—the choir getting on an international flight, and Reynaga hoping for the best. He would either get a passport or fly back to Albuquerque the next day.

Delta Airline paid for a hotel room for the night in Atlanta, and arranged a shuttle for him. He needed an appointment with the passport agency, and a recorded message told him the soonest he could get one was Aug. 4. The choir would be returning from Europe by then.

The Delta employee called someone, and got him an appointment at the passport agency at 8 a.m. the following day. She gave him a toiletry kit and a food voucher.

He needed a photo for his passport and asked the shuttle driver how close the nearest CVS or Walgreens was. The driver told him they were not close, but offered to drive him there anyway, waiting in the parking lot as he got the photo taken.

The next morning, the hotel had a car waiting to take him to his appointment.

Even at 8 a.m. there were 45 people ahead of him in line, all with lost or stolen passports.

Things moved quickly and Reynaga found himself filling out the forms for a new passport, which he was told would take 24 to 48 hours to replace. He would miss the Peace Choir Festival if that were so. But again, a person who didn’t know him or his story went above and beyond the call of duty, and his passport was ready to go a few hours later—the only one ready at that time. “Every person in line in front of me and behind me was an emergency passport situation,” Reynaga said. “I’m nobody special.”

Reynaga got on a train and headed back to the airport. At the Delta counter, a woman who was scheduled to get off work in five minutes instead spent the next two hours finding connecting flights that would get him to Vienna in time for the performance.

His plane landed in Vienna 45 minutes before the concert was due to begin. As his taxi sped across the unfamiliar city, Reynaga changed his clothes in the back seat, arriving at the Vienna Music Hall—a stage on which Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart once performed—just minutes before the choir filed onstage, with Reynaga in their number. “I was just thinking, is this really happening?” he said. “An hour ago I was on an airplane.”

For his birthday, a few days later, the New Mexico Peace Choir sang Happy Birthday 18 times, Reynaga said.

Reynaga has sung in many choirs, from high school to college and the Voices of the Santa Fe Opera. “This choir has more meaning and depth than any professional choir I’ve been in. They want to be there, they want to share this message, and it shows,” he said. That in spite of the fact that many singers in this choir don’t read music. “You’re working together to create one thing. There are many parts and when the entire choir is just gelling and they’re all feeling each other, all watching Christy, … we all just kind of melt together. Even though there are all of these different components, you create one song. You are working with these 78 other people to create something beautiful.”

In Prague, a stop that was not on the original schedule, which instead would have taken the group to Salzburg, the choir found the stained glass window Conduff had dreamed. They were touring a castle that had St. Vitus Cathedral on its grounds, one of the oldest in the Czech Republic, built more than a thousand years ago.

When Conduff saw the window, “She was very emotional,” Reynaga said. “She kind of had to collect herself. She knew. … A happiness and like a peace kind of came over her. She was meant to do that, and she got to do that,” Reynaga said.

The window “didn’t look a thing like my dream from the outside,” Conduff said. “I did get to turn around that corner. It’s not until you’re inside and the light comes streaming through.” She added, “Tears were streaming as they were singing, tears were streaming as I was directing. There were hundreds of people on their tours but in that moment nothing else existed.”

Later during the tour they learned that the name of the stained glass window is “Creation of Earth.” In her dream and on their trip, the choir sang Earthsong underneath it.

“There were a lot of tourists, a lot of noise with tour guides talking over each other in various languages,” Reynaga said. “When we started singing a hush fell over the entire cathedral. Right in the middle of the entire cathedral, right in front of that window. People started recording us. It was surreal. She was living out her dream.”