0 Day 12: New country for old men

Today was another one of those transit days, where everything is directed towards getting to the next destination. I’m sure the boys wouldn’t mind me saying that travelling with 16 children somewhat slows this process down.. So this morning we gathered at last night’s church, said fond farewells to our hosts, and boarded the coach.

First stop for the day was Mill City museum in downtown Minneapolis. This was a museum about the history of the city, set in an old mill building, and featuring a farmers’ market inside. Most of the men went in, plundered the free samples on offer, then retreated to a car park to play a game of frisbee. It was a game that caused organ scholar William Wallace to take a tumble, exclaiming ‘my foot hath slipped’ [Psalm 94: 18], and slipped it very much had – as evidenced by his torn woolly jumper. We re-boarded the bus, which took us to an old indoor market for lunch. There were multitudinous food stalls, coffee shops, bakeries, and even a decent jazz ensemble to serenade us whilst we ate.
We ‘did eat, and were well filled’ [Psalm 78: 29] so yet again we got on the bus, and this time it took us to the airport, ready to head over the border to Canada for our last stop.

A geographical curiosity proffered by my host was that in flying from Minneapolis, USA to Toronto, Canada, we would be actually flying southwards, as the state of Minnesota sits at the very north of the USA, and Toronto at the very south of Canada. After a lengthy wait in the airport (another precaution that has to be taken when travelling with a large group of boys!), we boarded the tiny Air Canada plane and made our sojourn – a remarkably smooth one, it must be said – landing in Toronto at 7.40 local time. It was -3 Celsius on arrival, only a little colder than Minneapolis had been, but -7 by the time we’d reached our destination.

At the church, we met our fifth and final hosts of the tour. We’re all now happily retiring to bed, ready to take in Toronto tomorrow and deliver the last concert of the trip! I shall leave you with a video I took of the last 10 minutes of our plane journey, sped up by 10 times:

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0 Day 11: St. Paul Concert

This morning we awoke to a decent flurry of snow in the air. Though the air is not as bitterly dry as in Chicago, it can get fairly chilly here in the twin cities of Minneapolis and St Paul, and today was one such chilly day. We had a good amount of time free today before our afternoon rehearsal at the Hamline Methodist Church for this evening’s concert.

Most of the men decided to explore fully the Mall of America, an enormous shopping mall complete with cafes, restaurants, and a theme park in the middle. Two of us started the day by indulging in a neck and shoulder massage to get us nice and loose for the concert. As my head was stuck in the squishy face hole in my massage table, I was unable to see what was going on next to me, but bass lay clerk Henry Hawkesworth was letting out occasional high-pitch shrieks; whether these were pleasure or pain it is unclear, but it certainly entertained his giggling masseur! Some shopping followed, and a lunch of American ribs, before it was time to tackle some roller coasters. The more fool hardy leapt from ride to ride, being spun upside down, inside out and all manner of ways round. Some of us slid down America’s tallest helter-skelter, and several of us enjoyed a thrilling log flume. Exhausted, excited, and considerable poorer than we’d been this morning, we got a taxi from this shrine to capitalism over to the church where we rehearsed. By this stage of tour, rehearsals are more along the lines of ‘sound checks’ rather than actual rehearsals, but they do provide us the chance to adapt the performance to the particular space in which we find ourselves.

After a yummy pizza dinner, it was show time, and everyone enjoyed giving this performance to the very appreciative people of the twin cities. The concert was recorded by Minnesota Public Radio for later broadcast, so I hope you’ll be able to find a link somewhere here once it’s ready. When you can eventually listen, keep an ear out for the beautiful solo at the start of The Lord is my Shepherd, sung by George – one of our star senior choristers.

For me, it was then over to a cocktail bar just outside town with my hosts, for a night cap and some onion rings before heading back and to bed. Tomorrow we fly to Toronto for our final stop. I’m excited for my first trip to Canada, and also now excited to get home, sleep in my own bed, see my girlfriend, and stop having to deal with the confusingly-designed American change!

1 Day 10: Twin Cities

Today we awoke in St Paul – one of the ‘twin cities’ of Minneapolis and St Paul that are divided by the river but part of the same urban hub in Minnesota. It is home to Minesota Public Radio, one of the USA’s most listened-to and well-respected radio stations, who will be broadcasting our concert tomorrow evening. It is also home to Mall of America, a huge shopping mall boasting countless shops, an aquarium, many restaurants and a small theme park! This is our destination for tomorrow morning, but today we were just over the road at the Waterpark of America, a huge warehouse full of swimming pools, slides, flumes, inflatables, hot tubs: you name it, it had it! This trip had been planned primarily for the boys, but it was something that attracted the interest of several of the men too, so 9 of us spent the morning enjoying the ‘noise of his water pipes’ [Psalm 42: 9]. ‘All of thy waves and storms are gone over us’ rang true as we floated on inflatable dinghies through the wave machine. This was an exhilarating way to spend our morning, and rather more innocent than what some of the other men had been up to…

image One tenor enjoys the surf machine

Whilst we were frolicking in the flumes, apparently the others were worshipping with the wallies… The other group had decided to spend the morning exploring downtown Minneapolis and St Paul, to see what was on offer. This was an exploration, apparently, that yielded relatively little, and after passing a building advertising a ‘Meat Raffle’, they decided enough was enough and to create their own intrigue. So they ended up taking a tour of the Church of Scientology in St Paul.

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This slightly suspect religious cult has claimed the trust of luminaries such as Tom Cruise, but didn’t manage to persuade any of the Christ Church men. Apparently, though, some new names have mysteriously appeared on the scientologists’ mailing list that included a certain ‘Thomas Tallis’. I wonder what he will make of it..

For those who had been swimming, lunch followed, at a bizarre novelty restaurant called ‘Dick’s Last Resort’, where the waitors are specially trained to be rude to the customers, and their slogan is ‘Service with Sarcasm’. We then got in a taxi to Concordia University, where we were doing an ‘exchange’ with a local boys’ choir. They fed us a lovely lasagne, and after a few drinks (of water) things progressed to the auditorium. There, the boys’ choir sang us a few songs, our choristers engaged in some musical games with their boys, and Christ Church Choir sang a couple of pieces from the tour programme, to help them understand the nature of what we do and to demonstrate how it differs from the choral tradition here in the States. It was jolly good fun to meet these children who evidently enjoy their singing so much, and to perform for them.

Now we are back with our hosts, resting for the night before our concert day tomorrow here in the bustling city of St Paul!

 

 

0 Day 8: Even more Chicago…

Howdy partners. Today was another, and our final, day in Chicago. For reasons which are still somewhat unclear, the concert that was scheduled for this evening was cancelled last week, leaving us with a day free in our itinerary here in Chicago. This was no bad thing, as it means we’ll have chance for some great vocal rest over the next few days before the next concert, and also it has given us chance really to get to know this beautiful city well – something that isn’t always the case on tours such as this.

Much like yesterday, the men got the train in from La Grange into Chicago Union Station this morning. From there we split off into smaller groups to go and see the parts of the city we hadn’t covered yesterday. My group decided to go up to the top of Willis Tower (formally Sears Tower) – a building that was for a while the tallest structure in the world. It’s now been overtaken by a good few buildings both in America and abroad, but take it from me: it’s jolly tall. The views from the top are spectacular in every direction, but one was certainly reminded, looking northward, that ‘upon the north side lieth the city of the great King’ [Psalm 48: 2], and here is that view:

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After the Willis Tower and some pizza-based lunch, some of us headed to the Art Insitute to view the beautiful collection there – some Renaissance works, some modern art, and a particularly beautiful impressionist section. This was a calming and enlightening way to spend the afternoon before dinner. Now for dinner, we parted ways; the church which had to cancel our concert offered us dinner anyway, and most of the men went southwards to take this dinner. A few of us, though, went instead to the Fourth Presbyterian Chuch to see a concert by The Tallis Scholars. They performed a concert of 16th and 17th century sacred music, focusing on the ‘Western Wind Mass’ by John Taverner (the original director of music at Christ Church!). They sang beautifully, and it was a pleasure for some of us to catch up with the singers over a pint or two after the concert, and it was particularly pleasing given how many of them (4 out of 10) had at one point sung with Christ Church Cathedral Choir! Here we are:

image Christ church old and new

For those who weren’t at the concert, the evening yielded a genuine Chicago blues bar, or otherwise socialising with our lovely hosts from Emmanuel Church. We’ve so enjoyed our time here in Chicago, and tomorrow we’ll be sad to leave, and sad to embark on another long coach journey. But we’re now on to the final two stops of tour and beginning to be excited about getting home for a few days off before the new term!

1 Day 7: Chicago Concert Day

We thought that English weather was changeable. It’s really nothing when compared with Chicago. Yesterday, when we flew into the city’s O’Hare airport, it was sunny and mild. When we woke up this morning, it was around 1*Celsius, and much of the day it was snowing. And they’re right about the whole ‘windy city’ thing too… It’s really a biting wind they have here and the contrast with the light breeze we had become used to in North Carolina was quite dramatic!

Nevertheless, we have had a very enjoyable day here in Chicago. Whilst the boys went off on the bus this morning, the men hopped on a train from LaGrange (the suburb in which the church lies) into Union Station in downtown Chicago. Many of us realised we’d need hats and scarves to make it to the end of the day, so mission number one was to track down knitwear in the city’s shopping district. Macy’s department store, GAP clothing, TJ Maxx (sic; it ain’t ‘TK’ over here!) and Zara all received the custom of Christ Church folk this morning, and once kitted out we explored some of Chicago’s many sights. For some this was views over Lake Michigan which nestles up to the east side of the city, for some it was the many skyscrapers including Trump Tower, for others it was the ‘Cloud Gate’ modern sculpture in Millennium Park, and for a few of us it was a taste of traditional Chicago food; specifically the deep-pan pizza at Gino’s pizzeria just of Michigan Avenue. We all had a tremendous time, and alto choral scholar Henry Kimber in particular ‘counted himself an happy man’ [Psalm 49: 18] having finished an enormous deep dish pizza by himself, which more resembled a cheese, tomato and meat pie than anything we’d normally call ‘pizza’!

image Man vs. Food

We then got the train back to LaGrange to rehearse for this evening’s concert at the beautiful Emmanuel Church. Unfortunately, our train was delayed on the way, and to make it to the church in time some of us had to run 4 blocks from the station. Frankly, it’s a miracle that 6 pizza-laden lay clerks running along the same sidewalk didn’t cause some sort of seismic activity register-able on the Richter scale.. but we made it in time, and enjoyed a productive rehearsal, where we joined up with the Emmanuel church choir to perform Howard Goodall’s evergreen classic ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ – a piece made famous as the theme music to BBC TV’s ‘The Vicar of Dibley’.

After a (pizza) dinner at the church, we performed our third concert of the trip to a very appreciative audience, and retired back to our homestays. Tomorrow we look forward to a completely free day to explore Chicago further, and a few of us have hatched a plan to meet up with some musical friends from The Tallis Scholars, who happen to be performing in Chicago on their American tour tomorrow night. More on that tomorrow.

0 Days 5 and 6: Delightful Davidson and chilly Chicago

This morning I ‘awaked as one out of sleep: and like a giant refreshed with wine’ [Psalm 78: 66], only I am certainly not a giant, and the wine hadn’t really ‘refreshed’ me – quite the opposite. I was dismayed to discover that I hadn’t written a blog post when I got home, and thus I would like formally to apologise to this blog’s regular readership (both of you), and simply promise that I will make it up to you with fresh levels of detail, biting analysis, and a healthy serving of mildly-relevant biblical quotations.

We are now at the end of Day 6, but I shall begin by recounting a tale or two from Day 5: the one that got away. We awoke in Davidson, North Carolina to a beautiful sunny day, with temperatures hanging nonchalantly around 23 Celsius and the sun kindly bestowing a red glow on the fair skin of a choral scholar or two. Many of us took a few minutes to look round the Davidson Farmers’ Market, where one could buy all manner of things, from lettuce to livestock, bird-feed to beef fillets. None of it would have travelled well in a suitcase however, so no purchases were made. As we had the morning free before an afternoon rehearsal, we explored more of the town, some buying souvenirs, some watching the Liverpool game in a sports bar, and some opting for a quiet coffee and some emails in one of Davidson’s many cafes.

image Brickhouse Sports Bar

Then followed a rehearsal in the beautiful and spacious Presbyterian church on the campus of Davidson College, where we looked at some pieces which were new for this concert, and polished up repertoire that we had covered already. The show was to be broadcast live on WDAV radio (see previous post), so the pressure was on, and we had the additional excitement of being joined by two local choirs and a brass band for Vaughan Williams’s ‘Old Hundredth’ and Walton’s ‘Coronation Te Deum’. It was good fun meeting these local musicians, and becoming part of a huge chorus for a couple of numbers in the programme. The large audience that came to the concert seemed very much to enjoy themselves, and they were particularly delighted to see Stephen clamber up on to his very tall and somewhat precarious podium to conduct the instrumental pieces!

image Christian’s organ practise in Davidson

After the concert, a handful of us decided to sample some local nightlife, and enjoyed some drinks in Kindred bar and restaurant, which comes very highly recommended should any of you find yourself in Davidson with a free evening. But don’t go if you’re intending to write a blog post afterwards.

Day 6, and the North Carolina sun greeted us once again, further ‘lending radiance to them that endured in the heat’ [Salisbury Diurnal], and we had a few hours for lunch in Davidson before hopping on the bus to transfer to Charlotte airport, where we boarded a tiny plane that would take us to Chicago, Illinois. After a short flight, we landed (on one wheel, to begin with..) at Chicago O’Hare. After an hour-long wait at the airport, whilst our bus was held up by a car on fire – yes really – we took the coach to Emmanuel Church where we were met by hosts. Now we head to bed and look forward to a day of sightseeing in this beautiful but chilly city, and our third concert of the tour tomorrow.

0 Day 4: Mainly bus

We convened at breakfast this morning, April 1st, and there was confusion in the air. Overnight, the choral scholars had all received emails from Stephen Darlington’s email address inviting them for 5-minute appraisals during the bus journey to Davidson. This caused quite some consternation, and one choral scholar went to ask Stephen about the appraisals at breakfast. Needless to say, Stephen had no idea about them, nor about the email they’d received. Some mischief seems to have been done, and it looks like we’ll never know how, or by whom…

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Ten o’clock arrived and it was time to board the bus for our long journey to North Carolina. We dutifully marched on to the bus and took our seats. As I walked down the aisle to take up my seat (at the back of the bus, of course), I was reminded of a wedding. There was row upon row of ‘guests’, ensconced in itchy, grotesquely-patterned seats, staring grimly ahead waiting to enter an unhappy matrimony with the highway. It was a marriage that would last only a matter of hours, but not without its trials and challenges.

Eleven o’clock came, and Davidson didn’t feel any closer.

Three o’clock, and we were broken men. The bus which had this morning felt like just a vehicle – a transitory place – was now all we knew. Life seemed to pass us by and any number of hours could have passed as we rolled along the interstate southwards. The only change of scenery was the sanctuary of the dimly lit toilet at the rear of the bus, and what meagre comfort it was.

Five o’clock, and we eventually reached Davidson. Our spirits were lifted. It was an unlikely ‘new Jerusalem’ [Revelation 21: 2], but we were relieved to be off the bus and into its spacious car park. Dinner in the centre of town soon followed, and then we headed to the Duke Theatre of Davidson College, to hear the great trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis perform a show with a local big band. It was a fabulous way to start our stay here, and now we rest up before tomorrow – a concert day with brass band and community choir!

0 Day 3: Virginia concert

Day 3, and with all the delicious but somewhat stodgy food, we are now having to guard against an outbreak of scurvy amongst the men, taking all our chances for fruit and veg where we can! This having been said, we took another fullsome and tasty breakfast this morning, and afterwards were free to explore the local area for a few hours until our rehearsal at 2pm. Some stayed in their rooms to do academic work, and some went to the local town Alexandria to explore the shops, cafes, and waterfront with its views northwards to central Washington. Alexandria has a beautiful ‘old town’, largely untouched from the eighteenth century, with cobbled streets, original shop fronts, and wonderful old houses with the traditional American shutters. The Alexandrians surrendered during the Civil War and the War of Independance, and thus the town was never significantly harmed, meaning the likes of us can enjoy it now for its beauty and historical significance. After a huge Mexican-style lunch in the old town, my party got a taxi back to the Seminary for our afternoon rehearsal.

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One member of the choir was late to the rehearsal, having had to make a little trip to the doctor. Our resident sportsman, Frazer, sustained an injury whilst playing ball, and had to be seen to by a doctor across town. He’s fine now, but has made our travel insurance policy worthwhile, and highlighted why we so love the NHS. The rehearsal went smoothly, and we enjoyed polishing up the characterful, effervescent choruses from Handel’s Acis and Galatea, which make up part of the first half. Again, it was a joy to sing in the warm acoustic of the seminary’s Immanuel Chapel.

Rehearsal over, the men assembled on a lawn to play a game of frisbee, joined for a while by Stephen, who was (I’m sure) frustrated by our lack of accuracy, and excused himself after a few minutes. The weather was rather more subdued today; the bright sunshine of yesterday was replaced with a cloudy covering, and through the day the heat got closer and more humid. The weather forecast earlier warned that tonignt would be stormy, but thankfully it seems that ‘all thy waves and storms are gone over me’ [Psalm 40: 9] and we’ve been spared the downpour…

Immanuel Chapel was completely full for the 7.30 concert, and all went to plan, save for a dramatic mid-Te Deum nosebleed by one senior chorister, swiftly dealt with by Stephen and his hankerchief. Organist Christian Wilson stole the show in the second half with his virtuosic playing, both in Walton’s Coronation Te Deum and also his own organ arrangement of a Mendelssohn Prelude and Fugue. The audience seemed to enjoy the show, and we received a standing ovation at the end, and flogged a good number of CDs to boot!

Sad to be leaving VTS after three lovely days, we decided to bid it farewell by popping into the bar one last time. Things escalated quickly and before long choral scholar Henry Kimber was up in front of a microphone, guitar round his neck, singing blues songs to an adoring crowd of trainee priests. What a send-off! In the morning we get on the bus for a 6 hour drive down to North Carolina for our next stop: Davidson College.

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Day 2: Washington D.C. in the sun

We awoke to another beautiful day here in Virginia, and after a hearty breakfast we all got the bus into Washington D.C. for a day of sight seeing. Whilst the boys went to the Smithsonian Air and Space museum, on Washington’s famous National Mall, the men divided up; some went to museums, including the National Holocaust Museum and the National Art Gallery, and some of went for a walk around the city, taking in some of the key sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Washington. These included the Lincoln memorial, the White House (where we were ushered away from the gate whilst President Obama left in a convoy!), the Jefferson memorial, and Washington National Cathedral – one of my personal favourite buildings in the world.

image Washington National Cathedral 

For a few of us, lunch was from an eatery called ‘WTF’, which is apparently a blasphemous acronym used by the youth of today, but which for lunch just meant ‘Woodward Take-away Food’. Despite this name, we took not away, but stayed resolutely in the restaurant to eat our ‘piggly-wiggly’, a sandwich comprising almost entirely pig related components. Healthy it was not, but tasty it certainly was. After more sightseeing, we reconvened to hop on the bus back to Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS), where we were joined at long last by bass lay clerk Henry Hawkesworth. Henry had to come out a day later than we, after delivering two Messiahs in Banbury – a feat of which even the Blessed Virgin Mary would be proud.

We then had a short rehearsal in the beautiful chapel at VTS, to get used to the organ and the very resonant acoustic of the chapel, before heading to the refectory for a dinner of great quality and size. There was succulent chicken, soft sweet potato, juicy sausage, wholesome pasta, fresh salad, bread ‘to strengthen man’s heart’ [Psalm 104: 15], then ice cream for pudding. After dinner several of the men headed to the local supermarket to buy a frisbee, and before bed a game of frisbee was had, a game which highlighted significant problems with the group’s eyesight, fitness and coordination: things we have subsequently resolved to work on in the coming weeks. We look forward tomorrow to the first concert here at the Seminary, before moving on to North Carolina on Friday and from there into significantly colder climes…

Day 1: Oxford to Washington

Good morning one and all, and welcome to this blog for Christ Church Cathedral Choir’s tour of the USA, March-April 2016. Over the coming two weeks, we hope to offer you here regular glimpses into our touring life: the highs and the lows, the ups and the downs, the ins and outs, and all manner of things in between.

Today started with a (fairly subdued..) 6.15am coach journey from Oxford to London Heathrow Terminal 5, ready to check in for our British Airways flight to Washington D.C. We were fortunate enough to be flying on an Airbus A380 – one of the newest and biggest airliners to come into service. For some choristers this was their first ever flight, so we were lucky to have clear skies during take off so the views over London could be enjoyed by men and boys alike. A comfortable 7.5 hour flight ensued and we landed at Washington D.C. at 2.15pm east coast time.

From the airport we were taken by bus to Virginia Theological Seminary, a episcopal training college just south west of Washington. This will be our base for the coming couple of days, and the venue of our first concert on Thursday. It’s gloriously sunny here in Virginia, and whilst many of the students and staff here at the seminary can be heard muttering about the ‘cold’, for us it is perfect; balmy breezy and bright. We had a lovely dinner in the refectory this evening, and some of the gentlemen took a nightcap in the bar, just to help adjust to the new time zone, of course. Tomorrow we have most of the day free to explore Washington before rehearsing in the evening, so do expect a full report back tomorrow with what we’ve been doing!