Young Ambassadors

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First Posted: 9/9/2014

Somewhere in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, a boy’s treble voice recently took on a certain unpredictability as it began to deepen into a manly tone.

That meant the teen-age singer would get a rest while his voice “reset.” He wouldn’t be traveling to Northeastern Pennsylvania with the choir after all. A younger boy would take his place, and that 10-year-old happens to be a vegetarian.

Could the host family accommodate the need for meatless meals?

“Oh, I’m sure they can. It’s only for two nights,” said Michael Stretanski of Kingston, who has been handling numerous such details while making arrangements for the Boys Choir of Bratislava to perform at St. Stephen’s Pro-Cathedral in Wilkes-Barre on Friday, Sept. 19 and at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Scranton on Saturday, Sept. 20.

The concerts will offer a wide variety of music, Stretanski said, citing a repertory that includes Andrew Lloyd Weber’s haunting “Pie Jesu,” some lively folk tunes and even 11th-century Gregorian chant and Renaissance pieces.

When Stretanski learned the 30-voice choir had scheduled concerts in the Washington, D.C., area this month, he asked them to extend their tour to Northeastern Pennsylvania, where people interested in Slovak history and culture this year are noting the 150th anniversary of the birth of a local hero.

The Rev. Jozef Murgas was born in Slovakia and emigrated to the United States, where he conducted wireless-communication experiments in Wilkes-Barre during the early 1900s.

“Thomas Edison sent Marconi to consult with him,” said Stretanski, who is a retired teacher.

In addition to his work as a radio pioneer, Murgas also served as founding pastor and architect of the former Sacred Heart Church on North Main Street in Wilkes-Barre, painted landscapes and religious art, collected butterflies and enjoyed fishing and playing the violin. “He was a genius,” Stretanski said.

The Slovak Heritage Society of Northeastern Pennsylvania has a large collection of memorabilia relating to Father Murgas that is destined to be displayed in a room in the new King’s on the Square building, formerly the Ramada Hotel. But it’s not there yet.

In connection with the choir’s visit, the collection will be on display at Good Shepherd Academy in Kingston for the boys to see it and learn about their countryman, who as a signer of the Pittsburgh Pact played a role in establishing Czechoslovakia after World War I.

“They’re ambassadors to us and we’re ambassadors to them,” Stretanski said, explaining the choir members will stay with host families whose children attend Good Shepherd Academy and will be treated to an American-style Thanksgiving dinner at St. Ignatius Church in Kingston. To give the visitors a taste of another American holiday, Stretanski’s friend Jane Daniels has volunteered to dress as “a classy witch” and share Halloween treats.

Tours of Steamtown and Nay Aug Gorge in Scranton are on the itinerary for the choir members, who also will have lots of time to practice for their performances, which are likely to include music in English, Latin and the Slovak language.

When they’re at their home school, the boys have academics in the morning and music in the afternoon.

Their acclaimed school has singers perform with famous European symphonies and orchestras and occasionally loans them to opera companies and theatrical groups.

“If someone is putting on ‘Oliver,’ ” Stretanski said, “this is where they’d get the boys.”