Cellphones lit up with text messages Monday when the Santa Monica High School students’ plane landed at Los Angeles International Airport. Friends wanted to make sure they were safe and aware of what was happening in Paris.
Turning off airplane mode, passengers throughout the jet quickly learned through Twitter and Instagram that Notre Dame Cathedral was in flames. The students, all members of two of their high school’s choirs, had performed there three days earlier.
"At first I didn’t believe it was true," 17-year-old Zelda Saltzman said Tuesday. "I couldn’t fathom that something that has been standing for 400 years, and where I had just sung, was completely gone. It was just really crazy. It was hard to believe that something with such history was no longer there."
Jeffe Huls, the school’s director of vocal music, said everybody felt the loss together.
"It was almost like dead silence," he said. "You could feel the heaviness they were feeling. As you were hearing them mumble about Notre Dame…they were in a sense mourning. It was pretty palpable."
On Friday, culminating a memorable trip to sing at historic cathedrals throughout France, 66 Santa Monica high students performed pieces in Latin, Hebrew and English at the majestic building for about 30 minutes. They were believed to be the final choir to sing in the hallowed landmark before a tremendous fire enveloped the 850-year-old French symbol on Monday.
The journey that began about 10-days earlier included sightseeing and performances at cathedrals in Caen, Chartres and Orleans. Each venue, Zelda said, had an individual sound, a “different energy,” and its own acoustics.
"Each time, it just got better," she said. But nothing matched Notre Dame in Paris.
"Once you got in Notre Dame, and you saw the stained-glass and saw the flying buttresses, we were all speechless," Zelda said. "We couldn’t believe this was a place we got to perform in."
Izzy Kleiman, 17, said "all of us were just gasping" when they arrived at the massive cathedral. She described it as intimidating with its stained glass. They started in underground clergy rooms, untouched for years, before taking their places in front of the altar.
Aoife Schenz, 16, said it was amazing to think how many people had led prayers there for millions of people for hundreds of years.
They sang selections including "Exultate," the first piece from Psalm 81; "Salvator Mundi" by Thomas Tallis, composed in the 1500s; "Ave Maria"; the Jewish prayer, "Hashivenu"; and the spiritual piece, "My God is a Rock."
"Everything felt like it wasn’t happening," Izzy said. "I was just trying to appreciate the moment. I started crying at a certain point."
Concentrating on her singing, Zelda said she could see the beautiful deep blues and reds on a huge circular stained-glass window to their left.
"It was lighting us all up," she said. "It’s so gorgeous and it shows you how long those people worked to build it and how much time was spent and how much love was spent to building a piece like that."
Santa Monica high’s music program is considered among the best in the nation. It was the subject of a documentary that aired on PBS SoCal last year. The school sends its choirs on semi-annual trips to Europe to perform. After mailing an audition tape to Notre Dame, they were selected to perform.
Students raised money throughout the year and received a grant from the city. Zelda’s father, David Saltzman, said administrators made sure that every student in the choir could go, no matter his or her financial situation. Some brought their parents and grandparents.
"The music is so elevating and beautiful and spiritual to hear all these kids," David Saltzman said. "They worked really hard all year leading up to the concert. It was really special."
Hundreds of millions of dollars had already been raised throughout the world Tuesday to rebuild Notre Dame. Although much of the landmark was destroyed, firefighters saved the cathedral’s iconic towers, some famous windows and priceless relics.
"It was just an incredible place," Aoife said. "The cathedral holds so much historical and spiritual value. It’s been standing for so long. It’s been through wars and civil unrest. It’s a symbol to the French and to the world. Just to have the opportunity to be in that space and sing in that space is mind-blowing."
Zelda doubted her choir will be the last to perform there.
"I don’t think we will be," she said. "I have faith we will not be the last."