Germany 2015

Itinerary:

Sunday 2 August
High Mass in Aachen Cathedral

Tuesday 4 August
Evensong + Concert in the Wallfahrtskirche, Klausen (Mosel)

Wednesday 5 August
Evensong + Concert in the Stiftskirche, Kyllburg (Eifel)

Friday 7 August
Evensong at Himmerod Abbey

Saturday 8 August
Concert at St Marien, Würselen

Sunday 9 August
High Mass in Aachen Cathedral

Germany Tour report

Download the report

USA and Canada 2010

ITINERARY:

(All venues except the last are in Washington State)

Wednesday 7 April
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church, Whidbey Island

Thursday 8 April
St Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Seattle

Friday 9 April
Ascension Episcopal Church, Seattle

Saturday-Sunday 10-11 April
St Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island

Sunday 11 April (p.m.)
Kilworth Memorial Chapel, University of Puget Sound, Tacoma

Tuesday 13 April
St Mary’s Episcopal Church, Lakewood

Wednesday 14 April  
St Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, Seattle

UNSCHEDULED EXTRA EVENTS DUE TO THE CHOIR BEING STRANDED 
BY THE ICELANDIC VOLCANO ERUPTION AND CANCELLED FLIGHTS:

Friday 16 April
St Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island

Sunday-Monday 17-18 April
All Saints’ Anglican Cathedral, Edmonton, Alberta (Canada)

USA Tour report

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Germany 2009

Itinerary:

Monday 3 August
Evensong + Concert at St Laurentius, Ahrweiler

Tuesday 4 August
Pilgrims’ Mass at the Marienkapelle, Pützfeld

Wednesday 5 August
Evensong + Concert at Pfarrkirche Maria Verkündigung, Altenahr 
(Parish Church of the Annunciation)

Friday 7 August
Evensong (in honour of St Paul) at Himmerod Abbey

Sunday 9 August
Protestant (Lutheran) Morning Service with Baptism; 
Catholic Mass; and Anglican Evensong
at Altenberg “Cathedral”

Germany tour report

Eight cars left the Rochester/Maidstone area early on the morning of Sunday 2 August, heading for the 10:00am ferry from Dover to Dunkerque, carrying 20 singers, an organist, five supporters, a choir director and (in the boot of the director’s coupé) a 3-manual JJ Binns organ from a church in Suffolk (vintage 1901, and ideal for accompanying English cathedral music). 

We were heading for the Ahr Valley, a picturesque area near the Eifel, about five hours’ drive from the Channel ports and an hour to the southwest of Cologne and Bonn: a wine-growing area (primarily red wine) virtually unknown in the UK (we only know of one importer of its wines, and he works in a cathedral somewhere in north Kent). 

Most of the cars (and their passengers) arrived safely in Altenahr around 6:00pm and all were very impressed with the location and quality of the newly-renovated Youth Hostel. The 8th car arrived much later in the evening, having made an extended lunch stop in Ghent and a petrol stop in Aachen. 

D&RHM having departed to their hosts (the Chief Exec at Altenahr Town Hall and his wife), the rest of the party (under the care of the 2/ics) hit the town in search of much-needed food. 

And there was much Schnitzel und Bier.

Monday started with a rehearsal in the Youth Hostel dining room – always an important moment in any choir tour because, although one has the luxury of working with (almost) the same group of people for a week (rather than a slightly different line-up for every service), there are, inevitably, deputies and extras replacing regular members who cannot join the tour, and these need to be integrated and to learn our ways. So time spent working on blend and balance is as important at this point as learning the notes. It was particularly good to have with us Bernhard Wiesemann (Director of the Youth Choir in Würselen, with whom we have worked on both our Bach St John Passion trips), Bernd Steixner, the originator of the Rochester-Würselen connection in 1995, and of course Heinz Schwartz, who did such a tremendous amount of “behind-the-scenes” work and liaison both before and during the tour.

After a couple of hours’ work we drove the 8 miles up the valley to Ahrweiler, where we were to sing “English Cathedral Evensong”, followed by a short concert, in the fine yellow-painted St Laurentius Church on the market square. This Evensong + Concert format is one we have used for previous foreign tours, and found it works well for two reasons: (1) it makes the point that we are a liturgical choir, not a secular one - our prime raison d’être is leading worship; and (2) it overcomes the objection some people may have to paying to enter a church: the Evensong is, of course, free; they can then choose whether or not to stay for the concert, for which they might have to pay. But before doing anything else, of course, there was lunch.

There was much Schnitzel und Bier.

After lunch we set up the Hauptwerk organ in the large “quire“ space behind the altar where we planned to sing. There is a very fine 3-manual Fischer & Krämer organ, only about 20 years old, in the west gallery (including a proper English Swell with strings and celestes, 16/8/4ft reeds and mixtures), but unfortunately the distance between west and east ends would have made choir accompaniment very difficult without audio/video links. [DHM knows this organ well, having frequently been allowed practice time on it during school trips over the last 17 years.]

It was a very hard first day's work, but worth it in the end. The church was full – maybe 200 people - with a very appreciative congregation/audience who applauded even *before* we sang and Jay played, as well as after; they gave us a standing ovation, and over 500 Euros in the plate – which was a completely unexpected bonus. The organ ran without a hitch. And there were still eating places open and serving when we had finished dismantling and loading everything. 

Yet again, there was more eating of Schnitzel and drinking of Pils and Kölsch.

The next day dawned bright and warm and turned into a glorious summer’s day. We were to sing for the regular Tuesday afternoon pilgrims' Mass in a tiny chapel on a wooded hillside outside Pützfeld – a small village a few miles west of Altenahr. On the music list was Byrd à 5 and Tantum Ergo by Sir Sydney Nicholson. The choir had to stay standing in the sanctuary area behind the altar for the whole service as, had we gone west of the altar rail, there would have been hardly any room left for the congregation, and we couldn’t all get into the organ loft gallery because of a weight restriction. The morning rehearsal was followed by a picnic on the meadows below, and the Mass was followed by Kaffee und Kuchen in the old Village bakehouse, now newly renovated as a village hall. The local press were there at the Mass, and gave us some very positive coverage and nice photographs. The rest of Tuesday evening was free. Some people’s attempt to ride the chair-lift to the top of the hill on the edge of town was foiled because it was closed earlier than expected (though they made it the next day). But a group of the youngsters headed for the Sommerrodelbahn – a nail-biting toboggan run on stainless steel rather than ice. Great fun was had by all, with much swapping and sharing of bobs. [There’s a video of some of this on the choir’s Facebook group page.]

After which there was, of course, much Schnitzel und Bier.

Wednesday was more pressured: a schedule similar to Monday's, starting with a morning rehearsal at the youth hostel, though the programme was slightly different. The venue was the Pfarrkirche Maria-Verkündigung in Altenahr (Parish Church of the Annunciation), but the setting-up of the organ and the afternoon rehearsal were delayed by a funeral service which we hadn’t known about before (that’s the trouble with funerals – they always happen at short notice!). During the afternoon break, some people had gone back to Ahrweiler to see the Roman villa that was excavated there about 20 years ago - it is said to be the most significant Roman remains north of the Alps, on a par with Herculanium in terms of importance. The congregation/audience that night was considerably smaller than Monday’s, but enthusiastic nevertheless. The sopranos pulled out the super-octave coupler at the end of Harwood in A flat to thrilling effect, and Covent Garden came to Altenahr courtesy of a pupil of Mr Lister. There were some good solos from several others as well, though one verse of a Willam Croft anthem was more highly embellished than might have been expected (the director claimed partial responsibility for this because of the limited rehearsal time). Most of us ended up again at what became our regular haunt: Café Caspari opposite the Rathaus.

And there was, yet again, much Bier and Schnitzel.

Thursday was a searingly, blisteringly hot day – a day off from any singing (except informal close-harmony, with too many people trying to read off one single copy of everything). Although a small number went hiking and doing other things, most of us went on a day out arranged by Heinz, which included a train ride to Rüdesheim, changing at Remagen and Koblenz en route. We had 4 hours in Rüdesheim, time for lunch, several beers and a bit of touristy retail therapy in the famous Drosselgasse, and a very interesting visit to a museum of mechanical musical instruments. The featured instruments included, inter alia, street and fairground organs, a combined piano/violin machine, a wind-up gramophone and a Bechstein player-piano; the guide was keen to prove that this could also be used as a normal piano, so Jessie kindly obliged with a beautiful performance, from memory, of a piece by Einaudi. The return trip was on a Rhein paddle-steamer (now diesel-powered) from Rüdesheim back to Koblenz, where we had to walk a couple of kilometres back to the Hauptbahnof for the train back to Altenahr. On passing the famous Loreley rock, we all sang the famous Loreley song "Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten" (as we also had done, a couple of hours previously, as a “Danke schön” for the guide at the museum).

Friday turned out to be a much more stressful day than we had expected when we left the Altenahr Youth Hostel for the (supposedly leisurely 1½-hour) drive to Himmerod (a 12th-century Cistercian abbey, destroyed by the French government of the Rheinland areas in their secularisation and dissolution of the monasteries in 1802, but rebuilt in the 1950s). We thought that singing Evensong in an impressive abbey church with beautiful monastic choir stalls and a fine large organ in the SE corner behind the choir would be relatively straightforward – despite it being a widely-advertised high-profile event as the opening of a 2-week long series of exhibitions, lectures, etc about St Paul. We didn’t reckon on so many cars taking scenic detours and arriving late (for whatever reasons), which reduced our available rehearsal time by 30 minutes. (Two ladies, who couldn’t join the tour until now, avoided this problem by driving directly to Himmerod on the previous day.) Much of the remaining pre-Evensong time was taken up with getting to grips with the vast acoustic and trying to synchronise choir and organ without an audio link and with only a small image of the director in a quarter of the organist’s monitor screen (neither of which problems had a readily-available solution, and Howells St Paul’s not being the easiest service to do with these problems). Fortunately we had taken the precaution of rehearsing in the Youth Hostel after breakfast before leaving Altenahr, otherwise the evening could have potentially gone very pear-shaped. A frantic scramble for robes, a room in which to change into them, and toilets, in the 15 minutes before Evensong created far more stress than one would have wished. But we made it through to the end and were given a very warm vote of thanks by the Father Abbot, and an invitation (a very sincere-sounding one) to return in the future. He said he hadn’t been quite sure what to expect from Anglican Choral Evensong, but seemed to have been pleasantly surprised and impressed. After Evensong the community very kindly entertained us to Abendbrot, which was early enough for most of the choir to enjoy a couple of hours at the hostelry within the abbey gates. We stayed in the Abbey guest-rooms which were (mostly) somewhat Spartan, but comfortable. Somebody, however, was given the “Bishop’s Suite” (anyone want to own up??). The following morning after breakfast Abbot Bruno presented us with a copy of his book (auf Deutsch, natürlich) on the love of Christ and the Rule of St Benedict, and gave some of us a generous guided tour of the cloisters and several other parts of the Abbey which would normally have been out of bounds to non-monastic visitors. They also gave us three loaves of their own dark multi-grain bread (but no small fishes).

After leaving Himmerod on Saturday morning we all had a 2½-3-hour drive to the “Bergisches Land” – a hilly, wooded area just east of Cologne across the Rhein, where we were to spend the last two nights at “Haus Sonnenberg”, a Catholic youth retreat centre. Several carloads stopped off in Bonn en route (no longer the capital since re-unification of Germany in 1990). This was another day free of singing – though we had wished it were otherwise. With three services to sing in Altenberg Cathedral on the final Sunday (OK, so what’s new in that?!) we would have liked the chance of some practice time in the building to get used to the organ (another massive and fairly modern Klais - like Himmerod, only much bigger!) and the acoustic, so as to avoid a repeat of Friday’s problems, but this was not to be. Saturday’s diary was fully booked with visting organ recitalists practicing and various other happenings. The added complication here was that this building is shared between two congregations – Protestant and Catholic – and the hours of the day are strictly allocated between the two (i.e. if you’re invited by the Catholic parish, you can’t rehearse in Protestant time, and vice versa). The sharing of the building (another 12th-century Cistercian monastery, like Himmerod, also dissolved in 1803 under the secularisation, then almost totally destroyed by fire in 1815) was the condition imposed by the then King of Prussia who gave most of the money for the rebuilding of the church in the mid-19th century. “Cathedral”, incidentally, is a bit of a misnomer, since it doesn’t contain the seat of any Bishop, though it’s still a mightily impressive building.

Approaching Haus Sonnenberg in the village of Odenthal-Voiswinkel (a couple of miles from Altenberg), one was greeted by a fairly depressing sight. Driving off the main road, up a hill into what appeared to be a very nice residential area, one was confronted by a tired-looking 1960s concrete structure growing green mould in a cul-de-sac. Someone remarked that “Sun Hill House” (to give it its English name) sounded a bit like a remand home for recalcitrant teenagers! Fortunately it turned out to be much nicer and more comfortable inside, with several sitting/meeting/teaching rooms and a wide choice of single, double, triple and quad-bedded rooms (to avoid any accusations of unfairness, the one and only en-suite bedroom was designated as an extra loo and shower for everybody’s use), and a range of equipment was put at our disposal including TV, CD player, free wi-fi internet, books, board games, a BBQ grill, and countless crates of beer in the garage (help yourself, put it in the fridge, sign and pay for whatever you use). The warden could not have been more helpful, and she went way above and beyond the call of duty in many ways. Cars arrived in dribs and drabs during the afternoon and people settled in. Some carloads went to spend the evening in Cologne The rest of us descended on one pub-restaurant in the middle of Odenthal to eat in the evening (still warm enough to eat out on the terrace under the awnings), though this did put some strains on the waitress who had obviously not studied her own menu and drinks list as much as she should have done – denying having any German red wine when there was a Baden Spätburgunder clearly shown on the list (when we were eventually given it), and insisting that the only red wine available was Lambrusco (we think she had mis-read or misunderstood Montepulciano d’Abruzzo). But the food was pretty good, and worth waiting for, and – apart from the lack of knowledge – the service was (mostly) friendly enough. Having haggled quite forcefully over one table’s bill (they were served drinks in larger measures than they had ordered, and been charged accordingly), we eventually made a rather hasty exit after a glass was broken by one of the younger members of the party.

There had, of course, been much Schnitzel und Bier.

Sunday came all too early. Breakfast had been ordered for 6:45am, since Jay and Heinz had a 7:30 appointment to get on the organ and set registrations and pistons before the 8:00am choir rehearsal for the 9:00am service. (More interdenominational politics: this had been agreed the previous afternoon with the Protestant Assistant Organist – yes, both congregations have their own musicians! When the Catholic Organist phoned DHM later to discuss the evening Mass arrangements and was told of the morning appointment, he was adamant this could not happen – the 7:00am Mass didn’t finish until 8:00am. Our choir practice could start at 8:00am as arranged, but not a moment sooner!). Even on a Sunday afternoon, access to rehearsal time in the Cathedral was difficult; we had been generously offered 45 minutes before the 5:15pm Mass. But they then told us that the (Catholic) parish office had booked a baptism for 4:30pm, so we could either rehearse an hour earlier than planned (3:30 to 4:15pm) or not at all. Despite this apparent friction, however, both the musicians were actually very friendly and helpful. The 9:00am service turned out not to be the expected Communion service, but a Morning Service with Baptism, and the congregation was sparse – we were told that lots of the regulars stayed away from baptisms (“too many screaming children”), plus it was holiday time. We sang anthems by Whitlock, Purcell and Lauridsen, and wondered what ructions there might be when the service ran over until about 10:03am – Catholic time begins at 10:00am sharp! We were wondering whether we could leave our robes in the vestry until later. Oh, no! This was the Protestant vestry – we had to take everything down to the Catholic vestry! We were unused to being out of church so early on a Sunday morning, and most of the cafés weren’t open yet (so we went and sat outside one, and waited until it did). At the Altenberger Hof next door (a very swish and expensive hotel on the Cathedral Square) a live jazz band was entertaining customers – and very good they were, too. The weather forecast being encouraging, we were planning a BBQ for the evening, and dispatched two ladies to shop for it. Unfortunately, this being Germany and Sunday, everything was closed, so no BBQ after all. Rather than stay around here for lunch, most of us went, at Heinz’ suggestion, to Schloß Burg an der Wupper – a mediaeval fortified town on a hill just a few miles away (close enough to allow us time to eat and do some sight-seeing without panicking about not being back in time). We all made it back in good time for a 3:30pm rehearsal, though that still didn’t leave a great deal of time for everything we needed to do. The verger started getting a bit agitated, and at 4:14 he started setting up the chancel (where we were still trying to rehearse) for the imminent baptism. We called a reluctant halt and went outside, where (a few minutes later, after the heavy bells had finished ringing down) we rehearsed Byrd’s 5-part Mass under the trees on the lawn with the birds singing along with us. Surreal! Well, the Mass went well (the Byrd particularly so, perhaps due to a slightly more relaxed tempo), the nave was almost full, the priest gave us a warm welcome at the beginning and generous thanks at the end (followed by congregational applause). We had expected Evensong to begin at 6:15pm, but the Mass didn’t finish until after 6:30, so it was no more than a 5-minute turnaround in the vestry before going out again. Evensong went better than it deserved to, considering how exhausted most of us were by this time. We somehow managed to keep Howells’ St Paul’s Service pretty much together until the end. The week’s music-making concluded with a stirring rendition of Hugh Blair’s rip-rollicking Easter anthem “Ye choirs of new Jerusalem” (it wasn’t Easter, but it was Sunday, so what the h***?), and as a “Finale” Jay gave us – for the first and only time this week – Vierne’s Carillon de Westminster, finishing with both 32ft reeds and, on the final pedal note, the 64ft “Donner” stop (the name, appropriately, means “Thunder”)! Our host/organiser from Altenahr had come over to Altenberg for the Mass, and had been greatly moved by our singing (as he had been on his own turf earlier in the week), and Jörg Bartz and Dirk Beyer, two of our regular “groupies” from Würselen, had also made the journey to hear and support us. Rather than all go out yet again to eat, we agreed we would go back to the hostel, unwind, and send out for pizza, which we did. And put a fresh crate of Kölsch in the fridge. And while waiting for the pizza to arrive, “Father Susie” celebrated Communion upstairs for those of us who were feeling deprived after two Sundays without. It was a simple but very effective and moving service. Susie had brought no service book with her, but read the Common Worship text off a laptop connected to the wi-fi. The bread was from Himmerod and the wine (mass-produced French) from the Protestant Pastor at Altenberg. We agreed that, being abroad, and arguably out of jurisdiction, we would ignore the recent archiepiscopal edict and receive Communion in both kinds - despite the threat of Schweinegrippe - and hug and shake hands at the Peace.

There was no more Schnitzel this night, but mountains of pizza and gallons of beer.

We had agreed to talk to the Warden about the time of Monday’s breakfast, since most people wanted to catch the 2:00pm ferry from Dunkerque (which meant leaving the hostel by 8:00am). After many unsuccessful telephonic attempts, we finally made contact about 10:30pm on Sunday, and asked whether a 7:00am breakfast might be possible. After a sharp intake of breath, she willingly (I think!) agreed. It was only the next day, when clearing our room, that I noticed on the Gästeinformation that the normal breakfast time at this hostel was 8:30am. “Above and beyond the call of duty” turned out to be a bit of an understatement!

Most people were up and around in good time on Monday morning. One car left early and caught the 12:00 ferry. The rest left as and when they were ready, and all - even those who didn’t get away until nearly 9:00am - made the 2:00pm ferry (just).

It had been a long week, but (hopefully) with a good balance of hard work and free time; an interesting mix of small, medium and large venues; a portable English “mini-cathedral” organ and two huge examples of Klais’ work; accompanied and a capella music of various periods from the 16th to the 20th centuries, well-known and less familiar; very experienced singers and younger ones learning the ropes, with an age gap of about half a century between youngest and oldest; those who prefer Jägerschnitzel and those who swear by the more piquant Zigeunerschnitzel; Pils-drinkers and Kölsch-drinkers.

My sincere thanks to all who were kind enough – and brave enough – to take part in the tour in whatever capacity: singers, organist, supporters, page-turners, organ builder-uppers and breaker-downers, those who agreed to act as 2i/c in various areas and took responsibility for all sorts of things to lighten my load, all of you who helped quietly behind the scenes, and anyone else I should have thanked, and may have inadvertently omitted. Well done, all!

Now the Schnitzel and Bier will just have to wait until next time…

USA 2005

Base camp: FIRST UNITED METHODIST CHURCH, ROCHESTER, NEW HAMPSHIRE

Itinerary:

Thursday 31 March
St Paul’s Episcopal Church, Concord, NH

Friday 1 April
Christ Episcopal Church, Exeter, NH

Saturday-Sunday 2-3 April
FUMC, Rochester NH

Sunday 3 April
St Luke’s Episcopal Cathedral, Portland, Maine

Tuesday 5 April
All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Peterborough, NH

Wednesday 6 April
Congregational Church, Plymouth, NH

Thursday 7 April
Chapel of St Paul’s School, Concord, NH

USA Tour report

Over six hundred souls in the congregation for Evensong. Every seat taken, and extra chairs imported, in the magnificent English Gothic collegiate-style chapel by architect Henry Vaughan, set in hundreds of acres of parkland overlooking a lake. A large 4-manual Aeolian-Skinner (the largest in the state, and recently rebuilt) that looked, felt and sounded like an English cathedral organ – and then some. Five hundred teenagers levitating at the beginning of the Introit as the astringent fortissimo bare fifths of Barry Ferguson’s music unexpectedly hit them right between the eyes, telling “Death and Darkness” to “get you packing!” (to a text by another Henry Vaughan - the 17th century poet). A young college chaplain (though already a Revd Canon Dr) excellently performing the Precentor’s part of the Rose Responses, having told us not to worry about adapting to their prayer book, but to do whatever we would normally do back home, taking great delight in singing “O Lord, save the Queen”. “You won’t get into trouble with your Bishop for that, will you?” asked our director; “Oh no, not at all,” came the instant repartee, “our Bishop just LOVES queens!” (This was, after all, New Hampshire). The Psalm for the 7th Evening, comparing and contrasting the Good Guys and the Bad Guys, the advantages of being amongst the former, and the fates awaiting the latter; and contrast a-plenty in the mood- and word-painting from the organist and choir. A confidently atmospheric performance of Herbert Howells’ Gloucester Service. A stunning rendition of Patrick Gowers’ “Viri Galilaei” with a wonderful look of euphoria on the choir’s faces – on the home straight now, difficulties all over – as the blazing full-organ glissando led us into the final chorale-tune with triumphant Alleluias, accompanied by the dancing “oom-cha-cha” organ part, and the resident Director of Chapel Music synthesizing on keyboard the pealing of all the bells in heaven for our Lord’s welcome-home party. An Episcopal Blessing led into the final resounding cheers of Bernard Rose’s “Let us bless the Lord : Thanks be to God!” followed by Jean Langlais’ “Te Deum” climaxing on full organ, complete with west end trumpets, Double Open Wood and both 32ft reeds…

What a jaw-dropping, mind-boggling way to end a choir tour!

It had begun eight days earlier, on the Wednesday of Easter week, with memories of the October 1998 tour (an early-morning start in pouring rain) followed by memories of the 2002 tour (traffic jams on the motorway – would we make it to the airport in time?). At least this time there was to be only one flight each way, we were only going to the East Coast (7 hours out and 6 hours back), and we would be based in one place with one set of hosts for 10 days.

Assembled in the King’s School yard we discovered, too late, that the two minibuses (kindly provided by KSR and a local church) with over 30 seats were still not enough for 25 people AND all their luggage AND three large suitcases full of robes, so three people had to drive to Heathrow and leave a car there (at vast expense). 

The motorway traffic eventually thinned out in Surrey, and we made it to LHR in good time. Security lines were as horrendously long as usual, and the last stragglers made it to the departure gate just as the crew were getting ready to close the aircraft doors. The flight passed off uneventfully and was more comfortable than on previous tours, thanks to the generous 35 inches of legroom provided by American Airlines in economy class. 

Arriving in what the locals call “Bwaaston” at lunchtime, we were all photographed and fingerprinted with remarkable alacrity by immigration officers, waved through customs as if the officer wanted to get home, and very quickly found ourselves outside, shivering, as we waited for the shuttle van to the car rental lot. The renting of our four pre-booked 7-seater minivans was organised with military precision by four desk agents, and we were outta there in no time flat (unlike the previous occasion: “Hello, we have reservations for five 8-seat vans.” – “Gee, sorry, I don’t got no vans.” – “Yes you do, the computer says you do. Look at these vouchers...” Eventually, he found them, but it took a while to convince him). Realising that 28 seats for 26 people (AND all their luggage AND three large suitcases full of robes) was not going to be enough, we allowed ourselves to be talked into upgrading one van to an 8-seater.

We had been warned to expect COLD weather. Some hosts had reported a foot of snow still on their deck. Kevin told us of his children playing in 5ft snowdrifts just before we arrived. Certainly it was chilly, though it warmed up considerably as the week wore on.

The drive northwards to Rochester took about 90 minutes, crossing the state line from Massachusetts into New Hampshire (aka The Granite State – license plate motto “Live Free or Die”) and we drove into the parking lot at First United Methodist Church around teatime to find many familiar and much-loved faces waiting for us. After a few words of welcome, hosts and guests were paired up and went their separate ways. Many long-lasting new friendships were made that night, and many other pre-existing ones cemented.

The musical part of the tour started the next morning (after one slight hitch: some people mistakenly thought the 10:00am rendezvous for a 10:30 rehearsal was in Rochester; actually it was in the church where we were to sing – an hour’s drive away!) just a couple of miles from where it ended - in Concord, the state capital of New Hampshire (pronounced not like the recently-retired supersonic airplane, but more like “conquered” with a couple of extra Rs) - with a concert in St Paul’s Episcopal Church (which would probably be Bishop Gene Robinson’s cathedral if he had one, which he doesn’t). Morning rehearsals had been called for the first two days on the assumption that we would be fresher earlier in the day, as we were 6 hours behind UK time (not the usual five hours – daylight saving didn’t start in the US until the weekend after the UK). After a few words of advice and encouragement from our director, we went to work in the choir room while our guest organist for the tour, Jason Smart (an old friend from DHM’s youth – they met 40 years ago on an RSCM course for teenage organists) got to grips with the first of the three Austin organs he would meet during the next few days. Getting organist and choir together in the church, we found it a very comfortable and rewarding space in which to sing. At lunchtime we were set free to find someplace to eat, and to spend the afternoon relaxing and exploring this interesting city with its gold-domed Capitol building and the Museum of New Hampshire.

The Music Director, Mark Pace, had obviously done a good job on publicity: a nave full of people greeted us enthusiastically (after a meal kindly prepared for us by Mark and his family in the well-equipped church kitchen). Unfortunately they had not printed any of the copious programme notes that we had e-mailed them, with texts of all the pieces to be sung and biographical notes on all the composers. The upside of this was that DHM had to talk them through the evening’s proceedings, which established a really good rapport between choir and audience (they even laughed at his jokes!). Musically it was a fairly easy ride, with most of the music for the first two nights being familiar and/or simple, eg Harris, Whitlock, Sumsion, Byrd, Taverner, Parsons, Philips, Croft, Gibbons, Stanford, Howells, Vaughan Williams and Rutter (the difficult stuff wasn’t on the menu until the 3rd or 4th day). They were kind enough to send us on our way with a rousing standing ovation and several hundred dollars from the collection plate.

The following day we drove from Rochester to Exeter in less than an hour (and no speeding tickets – but see later!). This Exeter is a bit like Eton or Harrow – most of the town is owned and occupied by what we would call (but they wouldn’t) a public school – Exeter Philips Academy, which has a fine chapel with a large new organ, where we didn’t sing. Our base for the day was not as grand a church as the other Exeter we all know and love, but very welcoming none the less – as were all the churches we sang in, and their people. We had borrowed an alto deputy from Exeter Cathedral Choir (Ruth H-M’s former Headmaster), and he presented a letter of greeting from their Acting Dean to the people of Christ Church, Exeter NH. Another of our regular altos joined us for this concert, having flown in earlier that day and been picked up by Kevin. Musically the programme was similar (though not identical) to the previous night’s, and included the first of three fine performances of Stanford in G – this one by a former Head Girl Chorister. Our director took a leaf out of Stephen Cleobury’s book by announcing, some ten seconds before the downbeat, who the soloist would be. The organ was less exciting than others: it had been built in the early 20th century for a downtown theatre, and moved into the church in the 1960s (at which time it was described as “far from satisfactory”). Rebuilt during the 1970s and ‘80s, it is now up for sale [see http://www.christchurchexeter.org/organ.htm] and will shortly be removed to make way for a grand new Lively-Fulcher organ to be delivered next year as part of an extensive refurbishment of the church buildings. 

The weekend, we knew, would be more hectic. But first we had to go en masse to the Maple Sugar Shack to fortify ourselves with a typical Saturday morning American breakfast of bacon, sausage, eggs, hash browns, pancakes with (of course) maple syrup, and all the “fixings”. (Most of us passed on lunch that day!) A mid-afternoon rehearsal preceded our first Evensong of the week, which was, appropriately, for our hosts at FUMC and was followed by half a concert (a format that we have found works well - making the point that we are primarily a liturgical choir whose main function is to lead worship). This saw the first of three performances each of more challenging modern anthems by Robert Ashfield, Richard Shephard and Patrick Gowers, but not before Jay had received a rousing standing ovation – very fitting, as it was his birthday – for a riveting performance of his own variations for organ on “Veni creator spiritus”. Before the concert started, however, there were speeches and presentations to be made: our hosts, their organisers and all those who had made this trip possible were warmly thanked for all they had already done, and still would do, for us; Rosemary Clemence, who works in our Rochester Diocesan Office, and whose boss, Cllr Sue Haydock, is Mayor of Medway this year, presented a commemorative plaque to the current Mayor of Rochester NH, David Walker; Mayor Walker, in response, presented a proclamation to Rosemary, declaring Saturday April 2, 2005 to be “Rochester-upon-the-Medway Day”.

Low Sunday morning saw us joining with the host choir and Organist Kevin Lindsay for a Methodist Communion service (in a form resurrected from one of their older Methodist prayer books, which bore remarkable resemblance to our 1662 and 1928 BCP services) with a memorable sermon on “Forgiveness” by Pastor Jim Cann. Both choirs sang Stanford’s B flat setting together, and we offered (by special request of the hosts) the same composer’s setting of “Ye choirs of new Jerusalem”. For this service and for yesterday’s Evensong we were joined by Anthony DeVito, a treble in Kevin’s choir who had spent the last academic year as a member of our own Cathedral Choir in Rochester UK. 

Sunday lunch for most people was a quick sandwich on the road, as we had to be in Portland, Maine (on the coast) to rehearse and sing Evensong in St Luke’s Cathedral (the oldest church to have been built specifically as a Cathedral in the States). Most people made it in good time, and we were greeted by Director of Music Albert Melton and Interim Dean David Illingworth (on his penultimate Sunday in the job), who also sang the part of Precentor excellently. The organ was a vintage EM Skinner, recently rebuilt at great expense, and a very fine machine it was. Barry Ferguson’s “Death and Darkness” was the introit here, specially chosen to show off the west end “en chamade” trumpets. Ferguson and Percy Whitlock were represented by Psalm chants; the setting was Stanford in G (this and the next one both good performances by more experienced members), and the anthem was Richard Shephard’s setting of “Ye choirs”. Evensong was followed by a reception in their very impressive parish hall, after which the rest of the evening was free for relaxation, more eating and a little sampling of local beverages. Half the party made the trek southwards to Newick’s famous seafood restaurant in Dover, the other half preferring to congregate at “The 103” in Rochester (which became the favoured haunt of many as the week progressed – great food, very reasonable prices, and much less far to drive home after sampling the local brews!).

Monday was a well-deserved complete day off – no singing commitments whatsoever. Some of the hosts led a party northwards into the White Mountains (where Herbert Sumsion spent his honeymoon in the 1940s – not many people know that!), past several still-frozen lakes (“when does it stop being safe to skate or drive on the ice?” one host was asked – “when you start falling through” came the reply). Two other hosts arranged a tour of a local brewery for some of their guests. Another party (including most of the youngsters) headed south for Boston and some much-needed retail therapy. Our organist went bird-watching, and the Exeter alto went ski-ing. A good time was had by all.

The venues for the next two days were further afield – about two hours driving – so the mornings allowed for a later start and a leisurely drive, with rehearsals scheduled for the afternoons. The Evensong-plus-concert format was much appreciated by both Episcopalians on Tuesday and by Congregationalists on Wednesday.

Tuesday found us in Peterborough, in a small village church listed on the National Historic Register, completed in 1920 by Architect Ralph Adams Cram, inspired by St Mary’s at Iffley (near Oxford) where our former Precentor, Canon Richard Lea, is now Vicar. Some choir members found a typical 1950s railway-carriage-style diner for lunch in the town, and for the first time the weather was warm enough to eat outside. We were told this was “not a poor parish”, and had been guaranteed a substantial fee (even before they heard us sing). A new Rector had recently arrived (from Wimbledon, SW19), and insisted that their caterers provide us with warm English beer to wash down our supper before singing. The free time between supper and Evensong saw a new departure for Special Choir tours: sopranos playing rounders (or was it baseball?) with the Rector’s children on the church lawn. The Nunc Dimittis of Stanford in G this night was very well done by (an apparently terrified) Bob Faucher, following two stirring renditions on previous evenings by the inimitable Mr Gipps. (Bob is Principal of Faucher Organs in Biddeford, Maine, and impressed us when he sang with Kevin’s choir in Rochester (UK) last year, so we invited him to join us for this tour.)

On Wednesday it was Plymouth - which meant, for some, a repeat of Monday’s fabulous drive northwards past the frozen Lake Winnipesaukee - and a Congregational Church to whom Anglican Choral Evensong was a totally alien concept (but one which, they admitted, they could very easily get used to). The church had been gutted by fire about 20 years ago, and the interior rebuilt. The organ was another Austin, similar to that in Concord, though more aggressive in tone. They had pulled out all the stops (as it were) to publicise a recent performance of Bach’s St John Passion and it seemed, unfortunately, that not much had been done for our concert. Nevertheless the audience, though small, was very appreciative. We returned, close to midnight, to our host families for our final night (for this year, at least) in Rochester NH. One of our van drivers (who shall remain nameless) narrowly avoided coming away with a less than clean license after running a 4-way stop and being apprehended by a concealed police car (sometimes known as a “Smokey Bear”, or possibly a “bear in a plain wrapper”). The same unfortunate driver was also zapped by a concealed speed camera the next morning! [4-way stops are a great American invention: at a crossroads, everybody stops, and then takes turns to go in the order in which they arrived. Far too sensible an idea to ever catch on back home, like turning right against a red light – permitted if it is safe to do so, unless otherwise posted.]

And so to Thursday, the last singing day. All were assembled early on the FUMC parking lot, and there were many thank-yous and farewells to be said. Particular thanks and praise were heaped upon three people: to Kevin Lindsay, Organist at FUMC and frequent visitor to our Cathedral, for setting the whole thing up and making initial contact with several of the venues; to Jan Kazlauskas and Sue DeVito for organising all the hosting, excursions, social activities, and probably a multitude of other behind-the-scenes things that we don’t even know about. The relationship between our two churches and communities has definitely been further strengthened by old friendships renewed and new contacts made.

So we left Rochester for the last time (at least on this tour) and returned to Concord – where this story began – and to St Paul’s School: an Episcopal foundation with a Bishop (not Gene Robinson!) as its Headmaster. We were invited to lunch with them in one of their dining halls after our morning rehearsal; what would “school dinners” be like here, we wondered? The menu included (among a multitude of other choices) “Fresh Chilean Sea Bass”; there were several other main dishes, an array of salads, ingredients for “make-your-own” sandwiches, half a dozen different varieties of coffee, assorted exotic fruits and a freezer cabinet full of (free) ice-cream bars. We guessed they probably spent slightly more than 37p per child per day on ingredients – eat your heart out, Jamie Oliver!

Thus ended – with the Evensong described at the start of this diary – the musical part of our third (and - dare one say? – most successful and least stressful) Special Choir tour to the wonderful US of A. There had been, it seems, some mild end-of-tour high jinks by our younger members: in the choir room after Evensong two of our gentlemen discovered small items of lingerie hidden in their anthem copies (“with a thong in my heart…”?). Exhausted physically and vocally, emotionally drained, but uplifted and exhilarated, we piled into the vans to drive back to Boston for a brief night in an hotel before our 9:00am flight to London the next day. 

Directions on the hotel’s website told us to leave the freeway at exit 29, but when we passed exit 28 and found that the next one was exit 30, we began to wonder whether our plane might be leaving from gate 9¾ in the morning! Arriving – eventually, after some circuits of downtown Boston and a couple of ever-decreasing circles of one-way streets around the hotel which we could clearly see, but not quite reach - we discovered that exit 29 only exists going northwards (and we were heading south). After some time to find our rooms and settle in, hearty steaks, ribs, burgers and suchlike were eaten at the restaurant next to the hotel, and there was (allegedly) much imbibing of local beverages, both there and in hotel rooms, until late into the night (the writer cannot confirm this rumour, however, as he wasn’t invited!). All except one were in the hotel lobby the next morning for the appointed 6:00am rendezvous to re-load the vans and return them to the rental depot, though there were reports of some very sore heads.

Return of the vans and checking in for the flight were surprisingly quick and painless. We left “Bwaaston” at 9:00am and arrived at Heathrow six hours later, at 8:00pm. The daytime eastbound flight was a novelty for most of the experienced transatlantic flyers; some found it had advantages over the usual overnight return flight (you arrive, tired, at the end of the day, and can sleep in your own bed). Amazingly (for London, at least) our baggage was in the hall before we got there. The minibuses were already on the M4 and only 10 minutes away. Two members took their leave here, and three more headed for the long-term car park. The rest of us headed out to meet the buses (and it was freezing cold in London, having become very warm in New England) and drive back to Rochester, where we (eventually) all dispersed in dribs and drabs, mostly falling into bed sometime after midnight.

So, was it all worth it? Most definitely. First-timers and old stagers alike all agreed it had been a fantastic ten days – tiring maybe (though some said, remarkably, they felt like they had had a holiday), but incredibly rewarding – musically, socially, spiritually and in all sorts of other ways. In a choir whose ages range from 18 to nearly 80, and whose members include not only enthusiastic amateur singers with decades of accumulated experience of cathedral music, but also ex-choristers, professional orchestral players, organists and directors of other choirs, it was heartening – and sometimes humbling - to see how everybody mixed in and worked well together as a team, for the good of all. 

Most of us had experienced the legendary American hospitality before. We knew what to expect, and were not disappointed. But this was different: the Rochester NH/Rochester UK connection has developed over several years; we were amongst long-term friends, not just one-night acquaintances, and that added an enormous extra dimension. Lots of the hosts put themselves out for us in a big way: many of them took days off (some even took the whole week) to be “groupies”, following us around to concerts, and leading us on expeditions on our day off. Nothing was too much trouble. Every church where we sang fed us generously. Most also paid us generously: one had guaranteed us a substantial fee in advance; others gave us all (or at least a share) of what was in the offering plate; two, from whom we had expected nothing (since we were only singing a service, not a concert) surprised us with substantial honoraria. All the travel and other arrangements had worked like well-oiled clockwork.

We all know (if we didn’t already) that when they say, “Y’all come back now!” they sure mean it. And we will. You can bet your bottom dollar on it.

Germany 2000

Itinerary:

Thursday 3 August, 7:00pm: 
Evensong + Concert at Dreifaltigkeitskirche (Church of the Holy Trinity), Aachen

Saturday 5 August, 6:00pm
Evensong at Aachen Cathedral
(the first ever Anglican Evensong at this Catholic Cathedral) 

Sunday 6 August, 10:00am
High Mass at Aachen Cathedral: 

Sunday 6 August 5:00pm: 
Evensong + Concert at St Severin Aachen-Eilendorf

Sunday 6 August 7:30pm: 
Evensong + Concert at St Marien Würselen-Scherberg