USA 1998

Itinerary:

Saturday-Sunday 24-25 October 
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Mercer Island, Washington

Monday 26 October
Grace Lutheran Church, Tacoma, Washington

Tuesday 27 October 
St John's Episcopal Church, Olympia, Washington

Thursday 29 October 
National Cathedral, Washington DC

Friday 30 October
River Road Baptist Church, Richmond, Virginia

Saturday 31 October – Sunday 1 November 
Asbury United Methodist Church, Salisbury, Maryland

USA Tour report

The coach was already waiting as the first of us arrived outside the Cathedral at 5:45 on a cold, dark Friday morning in the pouring rain. After loading, head-counting, fond farewells to those left behind and a surprise visit from the Cathedral Organist to bid us God Speed, 29 of us (23 singers, one organist, one director and four supporters) left at 6:20am for the two-hour crawl round the M25 to Heathrow to begin what was, for many, their first trip to the US of A, and for most of us, the adventure of a lifetime.

On arrival at an already-crowded LHR Terminal 3 soon after 8:00am, the first task for our intrepid leader was to persuade United Airlines to amend ten of our members' tickets, which had been issued with an incorrect date for one of our four flights - they were, apparently, to return from the Pacific Northwest to the East Coast within 24 hours, rather than the following Wednesday! This having been accomplished with much less hassle than expected, we proceeded to join the long and winding queues to check in for Flight UA929 to Chicago, our first en route stop.

Beginning now to realise why they had insisted on our checking-in three hours ahead for an 11:00am flight, we just had time for a quick spot of breakfast and some last-minute shopping before boarding our brand-new Boeing 777 for the 9-hour flight to the Windy City. Fortunately, we weren't taking any string players with us, so we were spared the embarrassment of anyone making jokes about having a machine-gun in their fiddle case - as some idiot had done, a couple of weeks previously, on attempting to board the self-same flight (he was arrested by armed police, who didn't see the joke, and taken away).

Apart from a slightly delayed take-off and some mild turbulence, the flight passed off uneventfully. The food was passable, the accompanying wines (especially the Californian bubbly) very acceptable, the after-dinner liqueurs supplied in generous measure, and there were headsets for the various music and entertainment channels (including being able to follow the talkback between cockpit and control tower, which - although not billed as "entertainment" - was at times quite hilarious!), and individual seat-back videos on which to watch a wide selection of films and other programmes.

We landed about 1:30pm at Chicago O'Hare (reputedly the world's busiest airport), where we had to clear US Immigration and Customs and re-check our baggage for the onward flight to Seattle. After taking a look outside to get a few minutes' fresh air and daylight in order to acclimatize ourselves to the six-hour time difference, we got on the shuttle "tram" to another terminal and walked for what seemed miles to our next departure gate, where we were met by Jim Massie (a friend of Andrew Coulson) who lives there and had done a lot of leg-work trying to arrange for us to sing in various Chicago locations; regrettably, this was not to be (not this time, at least).

Another 4½-hour flight, more airline food, with alcohol and headsets only available this time to those prepared to pay for them, and we arrived at Seattle-Tacoma ("Sea-Tac") Airport about 6:00pm (8:00pm in Chicago and 2:00am Saturday back home!), just as the sun was thinking about going down. En route we had seen some spectacular views of the changing geography below us: the Great Plains of the Midwest, the Rocky and Cascade Mountains, and finally Seattle buried in the early evening mist, with only the tops of the "downtown" skyscrapers and the 1960s "Space Needle" rising out of it.

Having already cleared Customs back in Chicago, all we had to do was reclaim our bags from the carousel, which was accomplished fairly quickly. We were also re-united with our soprano Anna Preece who had been visiting friends here and in Canada for the previous couple of weeks. What did take forever was all the paperwork for the fleet of "minivans" (8-seater people-carriers) which we had rented for the next five days. Eventually, with some of us beginning to feel just a little (?!) tired, we found the airport exit and headed for the freeway for the half-hour drive to Mercer Island, a dormitory suburb in the middle of Lake Washington, just east of Seattle; at Emmanuel Episcopal (=Anglican) Church our hosts for the next three nights were waiting patiently. After brief words of welcome, hosts were matched with guests, we went our various ways and fell into bed after what was, for most of us, a more than 24-hour day.

Saturday morning came all too soon. We met back at the church, where the first stories of legendary American hospitality were swapped, and we managed a couple of hours rehearsal. Some invigorated, some still bleary-eyed, we piled into the vans and headed for "Downtown" and some serious touristy sight-seeing, having first taken a detour to see in daylight the east side of the lake, with its Scandinavian-style inlets and pine forests. We rendezvoused at a waterfront parking lot; most people then headed for the famous Pike Place Market and lunch at one of the eateries with tables upstairs, watching the ferries plying between Seattle and the various islands in Puget Sound; others went shopping, or took the monorail to the Seattle Center and the Space Needle (left over from a World's Fair in the early 1960s).

We finished the day with our first musical engagement of the tour: "English Cathedral Evensong" at Emmanuel, marred only by a distinct absence of clergy (nothing new!) and a disagreement over the key of the introit. Nevertheless it felt good to be doing, at last, what we went there to do, and it was much appreciated by the congregation. The service was followed by a communal feast of Thai food at the mansion of one of our hosts.

On Sunday morning (with our body-clocks yet another hour out of kilter, as summer time had ended during the night) we were to sing at the 10:00am Eucharist to give Emmanuel's resident choir a morning off. We sat in the "choir loft" - the west end gallery which also houses the 2-manual organ installed by Rudolf von Beckerath of Hamburg, Germany, in the 1960s - and were coached in various congregational parts of the service by the resident organist, Gary Marks, who had set up this part of the tour for us. A very inspiring service (almost identical in form to ours - the main difference being that the modern English in their 1979 Prayer Book is so much better than our 1980 ASB!) and an excellent sermon from the Rector, Randal B ("Randy"!) Gardner.

After church our convoy drove eastwards towards the Cascade Mountains and lunch. Most stopped to see the impressive Snoqualmie Falls, 100ft higher than Niagara but less spectacular, with the Salish Lodge Hotel above them (a view familiar to many from the opening credits of the 1980s cult TV series "Twin Peaks"). Some lunched here, though the prices reflected its fame; another party found "Big Edd's", a roadside diner which typified small-town America at its best - plain home cooking of excellent quality, generous quantity, and service second to none from a happy, smiling teenager for whom nothing was too much trouble, even when swamped by a large, unexpected party. One carload had ventured even further east, as far as the summit of Snoqualmie Pass.

Sunday evening saw our first concert, following an excellent bread-and-soup meal prepared by some of our hosts in the church hall. During the first few minutes the peace of Parry's "Songs of Farewell" was shattered by a very unhappy baby; fortunately, its parents soon saw the error of their ways and removed it. Because of the classical specification and west end position of the organ we sang a lot of unaccompanied music, mainly of the 16th and 20th centuries, though we also included works with organ by Mathias and SS Wesley.

On Monday we bade farewell to our hosts and prepared to leave for our next location: the city of Tacoma, 30 miles south as the crow flies, or down the freeway; we had decided to take neither of those options but rather, after a morning taken up with more shopping and sight-seeing (one group made it to the Boeing 747 factory), we made for the waterfront and the ferry terminals for a scenic detour via one or more of the islands. The distance is, maybe, two-thirds of that from Dover to Calais, and takes about an hour; the cost amazingly cheap - about £3.50 for the car plus £2.00 per head (and payable in one direction only). Seattleites use the ferries like buses - many of them are regular commuters. The weather was magnificent - we couldn't have wished for better - and the views breathtaking, even for those who had seen them before. At home we talk of the sun or moon being "out": there they say "The Mountain is out", and it was - "The Mountain" being Mt Rainier (pronounced to rhyme with "beer", not like the Prince of Monaco), actually about 60+ miles away to the south but looking as if it were just down the road. 

Refreshed by these wonders, we found our way to Grace Lutheran Church - a modern "A-Frame" building almost entirely of wood, and much bigger inside than it appeared from the road. The acoustic was going to be hard work, on account of the plush carpeting; the organ (in a west end "choir loft" again) was small, brand new, and very fine - if you like classical "bubble-and-squeak", short keyboards and straight, flat pedalboards for the sake of "authenticity" (they don't appear to have thought about the fact that people are taller now, and have larger fingers and feet than they had 300 years ago, so authenticity like this for its own sake is sometimes counter-productive). So, once again, a lot of early and unaccompanied music was called for, and Purcell made his first and only appearance of the tour, with his large-scale verse anthem "O sing unto the Lord".

Between rehearsal and concert we feasted even more lavishly than before: enormous local salmon steaks were set before us! They obviously had an experienced chef in their congregation.

The organist there (the Pastor's wife) is also secretary of the local chapter of the American Guild of Organists and had obviously done sterling PR work amongst her colleagues, dragging them in from the highways and by-ways. We sang to an almost full and very appreciative house (including the organ builder).

Tuesday morning came, and more stories of more legendary American hospitality were swapped as we met for rehearsal. The mood quickly changed, however, as several of our ladies realized that large sums of money were missing from their purses; they had obviously been got at during the previous night's concert in a room which we were assured had been locked. The police were called, the rehearsal was soon abandoned, and we waited for what seemed like hours while statements were taken. Fortunately, it seems that the church's insurance will cover the situation and we will eventually be reimbursed; but it was a severe (though temporary) blow to morale and goodwill.

Our next stop at Olympia (the capital of Washington State) was, again, only about 30 miles down the road; so, again, the opportunity was taken for some scenic detours - most people wanted to get closer to Mt Rainier. Unfortunately the weather deteriorated, the rain poured, the recommended lunch stop took a while to find and, though the food was excellent, the service was snail-like. The result of all this was that several vans (including our leader's) arrived in Olympia almost an hour late for the planned rehearsal. Furthermore, the programme notes which we had attempted to e-mail to the Rector a couple of weeks previously had turned up as gobbledegook on his computer, so he and his secretary now had to take our master copies quickly to the photocopier. He was not a happy bunny.

St John's Episcopal Church (where DHM was actually interviewed for the organist's job many years ago) is just a few blocks down from the Capitol (a slightly smaller version of the one in Washington DC). The organ here was more normal, though fairly limited; this meant we could include more of our regular 20th century repertoire to vary the programme from the previous two nights. The church was larger (longer, wider and taller) than the last two, with much improved acoustics which made the choir's job much easier. Again, there was a fairly large and very appreciative audience.

Wednesday morning came and, for once, we were able to make a fairly prompt getaway as we prepared to take our leave of the Pacific Northwest and fly "back east" - though not before Cyril, as acting Treasurer, had been to the bank with Fr Fred to cash the cheque for our fee, and had his fingerprints taken as security! This time we did take the freeway for the 50-mile drive back northwards to "Sea-Tac" airport, where we left our fleet of vans and checked in for the 4½-hour flight to "The Nation's Capital".

Our flight was slightly delayed due to a "technical problem": they thought there might be a hydraulic leak in the landing gear system! Eventually they decided it wasn't serious enough to prevent us going, so we went. Darkness closed in en route as we criss-crossed time zones and lost three more hours. Shortly after 9:00pm we arrived at Washington's Dulles International Airport, set in the rolling Virginia countryside which we couldn't see. Here we met up with a real East-Coast "character": Antonio Gutierrez, our bus driver for the next four days. Tony was well known to DHM and Andrew Coulson from the Cathedral Choir tour of October 1996; we particularly wanted to work with him again, and he had quoted us a good rate. He too was glad to renew old acquaintances, despite having had to drive several hundred miles down from his base in New Jersey.

The lateness of the hour notwithstanding, we had a rehearsal booked: 10:30pm at the National Cathedral, where we were to sing Evensong the next day. They don't like musicians rehearsing while the building is open for tours during the day, and we were only allowed a brief half-hour slot on Thursday afternoon, so this late-night session, fitted in after another concert had just finished, was essential (anyway, on our body-clocks it was only 7:30, not 10:30pm).

The National Cathedral stands on a hill on the northwestern edge of the city. Our visit had been arranged through Nick White, one of their Assistant Organists, who had earlier lived in Meopham and was interviewed (along with Roger Sayer and three others) for the Assistant Organist's job at Rochester in 1989. He left Washington last term for a post in New York City, and we were met on arrival by Bruce Neswick, who runs their Girls Choir. Even in the dark, everyone was overwhelmed by the enormity and the beauty of this magnificent "14th century Gothic" cathedral, begun in the early 1900s and finally completed just eight years ago. The organ was truly a monster, and Jay (our Organist, Jason Smart - a friend from DHM's teenage years) feared it would take him some time to tame it (it did!). Trying not to be too overawed by it all - not least by the fact that we had been allowed to sing here at all, when other English cathedral choirs had been turned down - the choir quickly switched into work mode and sang through the following day's music to try to get accustomed to the vast acoustic (not unlike St Paul's in London). Bruce said some very encouraging things about the quality of the choir in general, and in particular he liked the unhurried pace of the psalm and the clarity of our diction. (It all felt so natural - we were, after all, a cathedral choir rehearsing for Evensong in a cathedral - he didn't even notice we were singing their modern translation of the psalm, as instructed, rather than our own Coverdale version.)

Having got the measure of the building and seen what needed to be brushed up on the morrow, we went in search of the Days Inn on Connecticut Avenue, about a mile away (though it took Tony a while to find it, as we took the first of several unplanned sight-seeing tours). Check-in, at around midnight, was simply a matter of distributing pre-programmed key cards, as we had an advance group reservation, and finding our rooms. Many by now were hungry, and were not best pleased to find that most eating places in the area were closed. Tony rescued the situation by ordering a mountain of pizza to be delivered, which we devoured in the hotel lobby as we relaxed for the next hour or more. And so, eventually, to bed. The accommodation was not luxurious, but quite acceptable, giving a standardized level of comfort and two nights' freedom from having to make polite conversation with hosts (grateful though we indeed had been, and would be again later in the week, for their hospitality).

On Thursday morning most people slept late, and then enjoyed a typical American breakfast in the diner next door. Tony took us for a tour of the principal sights of Washington (the White House, the Capitol building and various monuments) with brief photo-opportunity stops where possible.

After a brief return to the hotel to freshen up, we loaded up the bus again to return to the Cathedral for a guided tour, prior to our rehearsal and Evensong. At this point, regrettably, one of our sopranos was last seen hailing a cab and (so we learned later) heading for the airport and a plane home. We're still not quite sure why. But the show had to - and did - go on.

Most members took advantage of the opportunity for a brief look round the building, which was funded entirely by the public - not a cent from the government, because of the separation of Church and State. There is some magnificent stained glass - most of it traditional in style, but some modern, including the "Space Window" which has a piece of moon rock embedded in it.

We had a brief rehearsal before Evensong, during which we were coached in the responses (which were congregational) by the Canon who was to sing the Office, and by the (extremely helpful) Head Verger. This really was one of the highlights of the tour. The choir rose magnificently to the occasion. Howells' "Collegium Regale" canticles and Balfour Gardiner's "Evening Hymn" felt sufficiently familiar to most people for there to be a nice relaxed feel about it all. Not only were both Assistant Organists on hand, but Bruce also brought the Head Girl and other girl choristers; the Cathedral Organist came; the Precentor, who was not on duty, came, and (she) sat in the congregation along with others of her colleagues. We were made to feel so welcome, and felt it a real privilege to be allowed to sing there. Afterwards we presented a Rochester Cathedral Choirbear to the Girl Choristers as a "thank you" for standing down to enable us to sing on a day when they should normally have sung Evensong themselves.

The evening was spent in Georgetown, parts of which date from the mid 1700s - before Washington DC was established. Various groups went in search of various different cuisines, there being just about every kind imaginable on offer within the space of a couple of blocks.

We persuaded the hotel management to allow us a late check-out on Friday, so that we didn't have to vacate our rooms immediately after breakfast. Some enjoyed another lie-in and a lazy morning; others went downtown for more sightseeing, or visited the various museums along the Mall, including the Air & Space Museum and the Holocaust Museum; others went back to the Cathedral for another look around.

We (most of us, at least) checked out around midday, and the bus was due to leave at 1:00pm. However, by 1:20 we were still missing a couple of people who had gone off individually. They eventually roared up in taxis, and we set off soon afterwards, heading south (once Tony had managed to find his way out of the city) towards Richmond, Virginia. En route we stopped for lunch at a quaint country-style restaurant that Tony had recommended.

We arrived - getting on for an hour late, as usual - at River Road Baptist Church (or, as it prefers to be known: "River Road Church, Baptist") and met up with the "Minister of Music" (a very American term for Organist & Choirmaster), E Carl Freeman who, we later learned, had just celebrated 30 years' service at River Road and been rewarded by a grateful congregation with a sabbatical trip to Europe next year. This was obviously not a poor church; in addition to the main church building (with an enormous 1970s four-manual organ) there were various other teaching and meeting blocks, a smaller chapel and their own minibus; there are plans for a $1 million extension, mainly to provide better facilities for the musicians!

After another all-too-short rehearsal we were generously fed with a fine lasagne and salad, and pumpkin pie for dessert (it being almost Hallowe'en).

At least here, we felt, we could include some big 20th century pieces with organ, and so some of our favourites by Philip Moore and Herbert Sumsion found their way in for the first time this week, as did Hubert Parry's "I was glad" - which we sang in procession to start the evening - and his marathon "Hear my words, ye people", featuring a fine bass solo from Jeremy. It was a very large "room", with seating for over 1,000 people and resonant (though slightly weird) acoustics. The organ was huge, and Jay produced some of his best playing of the week. Somewhat surprisingly, this venue produced the smallest audience and the lowest fee income of the week - although, to be fair, two or three other English cathedral choirs were in the area the same week, and this date was a late addition to our schedule.

We would have departed on time on Saturday morning, had we not arrived at the church to find it locked, with most of our robes and music inside, and no idea whether or not anyone with a key was planning to turn up! Fortunately, Carl did turn up a half-hour later, so we could collect our things, load up and hit the road yet again.

Despite requests to see interesting historic sites in Richmond and in Colonial Williamsburg, which we were to pass on our way, our leader demanded that these be left for a future visit and that we endeavour, for once, to arrive somewhere on time!

Salisbury, Maryland, is about 120 miles north-east of Richmond. However, there is the small matter of the Chesapeake Bay separating the two, necessitating a journey of over 200 miles, either going back via Washington and approaching it from the north, or - as we decided to do - heading south via Norfolk, by-passing some famous US naval bases, and taking the spectacular Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel: a total of almost 18 miles including over 12 miles of trestled roadway, two mile-long tunnels, two bridges, two miles of causeway, four man-made islands and 5½ miles of approach roads, opened in 1964 at a cost of $200 million. Part-way across there is a pier with a restaurant and gift shop, and here we stopped for lunch.

We arrived in Salisbury almost on schedule and found our way to Asbury Methodist Church easily (some of us having recognised it from two years ago), where we were met by our old friend Taylor Harvey, the Organist. "Great!" we thought - the luxury of a decent amount of rehearsal for our last concert of the week. Then we were told that our hosts would be meeting us shortly to take us home to eat before the concert! Nevertheless we managed to work for nearly an hour before having to disperse. One problem at this point was that Jeremy was in danger of re-visiting his breakfast, and was feeling decidedly off-colour; feeling no better later, he unfortunately had to stay home and miss the concert.

The church building was only slightly smaller than that at Richmond, with yet another large, modern four-manual for Jay to get his teeth into. The programme was similar to the previous night's, though Parry's marathon with Jeremy's solo had to be dropped, and instead of Howells' "Gloucester Service" we sang the Magnificat from Richard Lloyd's "Salisbury Service" (written for a different Salisbury, but we thought it was a nice touch); we finished off the evening with Howells's "Collegium Regale" Te Deum.

And so to bed - our last American bed for a while.

All Saints' Day dawned bright and warm. Although this was a Methodist church, it was considerably "higher" in terms of ceremonial than lots of Anglican churches we could name (the same seemed to be true also of River Road [Baptist] Church in Richmond), and they really knew how to celebrate. We sang more of the Communion Service than we would have done back home - everything except the Creed, in fact; plus anthems/motets at the gradual, offertory, and communion. All this provided an interesting contrast to some of the "Moody & Sankey"-style hymns which were also included.

And so ended the last musical engagement of our tour. Long and repeated farewells were said; everybody wanted us to "come back soon!". We loaded up the bus and hit the road. Being somewhat concerned about how long the journey back to Dulles Airport, west of Washington DC, might take, we agreed not to stop en route for a sit-down lunch, but rather to find a convenience store and get something "to go". We headed north, then westwards and over the [other] Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Tony decided not to take the "Capital Beltway" (DC's M25) but to go right through the city and out the other side. In spite of that, we still reached the airport in good time, as afternoon turned into evening. The place was seething, and we had to double-park in order to unload; our goodbyes to Tony had to be brief, before the police moved him on.

Yet again, as at Heathrow on the outbound trip, we had to join the communal queues, there being no group check-in desk for United's international flights. Assembled eventually at the departure gate for our 7:00pm flight, we discovered a potential problem: despite United having not one but three flights all leaving Washington for London within an hour or so, they were all full - overbooked, in fact (which is not uncommon); initially not all of our party were given seat assignments, though repeated pestering during the ensuing hour at last delivered the goods; during this time there had been calls over the tannoy for volunteers to get off and fly tomorrow instead, in return for a night in an hotel at their expense and, at first, $200, then later up to $400. One or two of us gave it serious thought, but in the end decided we all wanted to fly together.

The plane was late arriving from Los Angeles, so our departure was delayed by about an hour. Again, the flight (a little under seven hours this time) was for most people uneventful: we were fed and watered; we listened to music and watched "The X-Files" for the umpteenth time; some of us even slept. Breakfast was served shortly before landing at Heathrow.

We had left England ten days before in the cold and pouring rain; we returned to the same. Yesterday we were in shirtsleeves, enjoying temperatures around 70°F. It seemed like another world, and we knew which one we preferred!

It occurred to us that we had no idea where we were supposed to meet the coach to take us home. After a couple of phone calls and a bit of exploring, we found it. Even better, we found the driver shortly afterwards as well. We bid an emotional farewell to Jay, who had done wonders with so many strange organs and so little time to get to know them; he was heading for Paddington and a train back to Plymouth. The rest of us reluctantly re-traced our way around the wet, Monday-morning M25, and Rochester Cathedral hove into view shortly before 11:00am. Music folders and suitcases full of robes were deposited in the Gundulf Tower, to be unpacked and sorted another day. Cars were collected from King's Prep School, where we had been generously allowed to leave them. 

Most had only short journeys: some home to bed, some even to work! Our German friends, however, still had to make for Dover, the Ostend ferry, and a three-hour drive to their homes near Aachen. We are particularly grateful to them - the choir would have been much the poorer without them.

And so at last it was all over. We would spend the next few days wondering whether it had actually happened - or was it all a dream? - and trying to return to what our friends back across the Big Pond would call "normalcy". Despite the stresses and strains of flying nearly 12,000 miles, driving several hundred more, staying with five different sets of hosts and singing four services and five concerts in six churches in nine days, we had all got to know each other a lot better, made many new friends, seen breathtaking sights, experienced generous hospitality, made some great music together, and had a lot of fun. We would gladly do it all over again - but perhaps not next week.