USA 2005



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] 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.