Day 8: Free day in Chicago

The choir spent today at large in Chicago. True to the weather ‘rollercoaster’ promised on TV yesterday, the day started surprisingly brightly despite the crisp, cool temperatures. The boys set off for the Museum of Science and Industry, giving the Form 8s the chance to do some Common Entrance revision on the coach (parents please take note).

In classic chorister style our first priority was the museum shop. So enticing and varied was it that the boys spent nearly a full hour shopping before even laying hands on their museum entrance tickets, having bounced, thrown, squashed, worn, shaken and prodded pretty much every item on display. The MSI seemed endless, and – other than a short break for lunch – the boys were kept in perpetual motion between floors of interactive experiments, becoming a sort of scientific exhibit in their own right. They created tsunamis, stroked therapy robots, shaped tornadoes, watched chicks hatch, got lost in a mirror maze and – probably the highlight of the day – visited the museum’s Nazi U-boat, U-505, dramatically captured in 1944 complete with Enigma machine and codebooks.

Late in the afternoon we headed to Millennium Park to visit Anish Kapoor’s ingenious Cloud Gate, a mirror-like sculpture that enabled the narcissists among us to take selfies with Chicago skyscrapers in the background. Slightly chilled from the al fresco photography the boys took refuge in a nearby restaurant, where they warmed up by eating ice cream (it seemed to do the trick somehow). For dinner we were hosted by the generous congregation of St Paul & the Redeemer in Hyde Park, where the combination of deep-dish pizza, apple pie and root beer has undoubtedly given us the energy we’ll need to cope with tomorrow’s long drive to Minneapolis. North Star State, here we come!

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’!

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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.

Day 7: Concert in La Grange, Illinois

Refreshed by the home comforts of a night with their hosts, the choristers hit the busy streets of Chicago this morning. Once delivered into the city centre the boys were narrowly prised away from the ‘Rock N Roll’ McDonald’s on Clark Street (supposedly once the busiest McDonald’s in the US), and instead climbed on an open-top tour bus for a two-hour trip around the city.

Our tour guide had scarcely finished describing the way in which Lake Michigan funnels arctic air south before a violent flurry of snow sent the choristers fleeing from their open-air seats. Some retreated below; a few braved it out up top under a screen which afforded stunning views of the city whilst giving a little protection from the elements. We felt very stoic and British as we sat looking over the choppy green waters of the lake as freezing mist rolled in. No major architectural sight was missed, and the boys took delight in spotting buildings destroyed by the Decepticons in a certain film beloved of the boarding house.

After being dropped back underneath the golden arches we soon found ourselves in the warmer surroundings of Portillo’s, a Chicago institution, where we fell upon hot dogs and juicy Italian beef sandwiches in kitsch surroundings. Another local delicacy popular with the boys was the Cake Shake, a milkshake made from chocolate cake, and after such hearty fare it’s a wonder that they managed to walk back to the coach under their own steam.

We returned to La Grange for rehearsals in the picturesque surroundings of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, where the spectacular stained glass and flattering acoustic drew particularly favourable comments. Our superb hosts treated us to a supper of pizza (cut into squares, another Chicago culinary tradition) before tonight’s concert, in which the choir was once again joined for part of the programme by local singers. The audience was terrifically appreciative, and we’re extremely grateful for the warm welcome we’ve received here – which balances up against the snow falling outside!

Tomorrow’s weather forecast? Falling temperatures…

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.

Day 6: Davidson to Chicago

The choristers set off for the shores of Lake Norman to make the most of their last morning in North Carolina. The setting was so beautiful and the sky so blue that we could hardly believe how fortunate we were to be there.

The interests of a Christ Church chorister are nothing if not varied, and after splitting up into groups the boys spent several hours:

– playing volleyball (who needs a net when you have a log?)
– posing for photos
– listening to the radio
– catching up with social media
– geocaching (when one of the senior boys found a log-book in the undergrowth)
– playing baseball
– inventing new games, such as ‘wet sand vs. dry sand’ (too complicated to explain here, but I was assured that ‘sometimes the dry sand loses’ by a small chorister who hurled a handful into the lake by way of demonstration)

We picked the gents up on the coach and were waved off by Lisa and Jane, who have looked after us so marvellously. The short flight to Chicago passed in no time… however our exit from O’Hare was significantly slower than hoped due to a car fire that trapped our coach in a traffic jam.

A rather tired and hungry choir reached Emmanuel Episcopal Church at around 9pm, where a throng of homestay hosts were ready to meet us. A small breakaway group of boys and men were spirited away by the coach to stay at a nearby hotel, where delivery pizza and free cookies (yes – free cookies!) were exactly what was needed to help us recharge before we take on the Windy City in the morning…

Listen: Concert at Davidson College Presbyterian Church

Christ Church Cathedral Choir of Oxford, England returns to Davidson College Presbyterian Church to perform as part of their 2016 United States tour. The group was joined by 75 local singers from Davidson College Presbyterian Church, Davidson United Methodist Church, and The Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforter, Charlotte. The event was presented live by WDAV with host Theresa Woody and Matt Rogers.

Day 5: Concert in Davidson

This morning began with that tour staple: room inspection. Despite their luxurious surroundings the boys managed to summon up the spirit of Spartans, presenting not just neatly tidied rooms but also every item of concert gear on display in order to check for creases. Before lunch there was time for a dip in the hotel pool, which became the back-drop for many rounds of Underwater Jousting (about which the less said the better).

Unable to believe our luck with the weather, we set off under azure skies to a Mexican restaurant a little way from the church. Luckily the waiters could hear us coming, thanks to the impromptu close harmony singing springing from the senior boys, and we were soon tucking into burritos in the sunshine. The ghost pepper hot sauce (‘more than one drop is suicide’) was carefully rationed by staff lest unfortunate side effects occur this evening.

After a quick game of Frisbee on the idyllic lawns outside the church it was time to shift gear and do some tough rehearsing for the evening’s concert and live broadcast. The choir were joined by local singers, brass and timpani for part of the programme, and the church was filled to capacity by an extremely appreciative audience. Tired but exhilarated, the choristers clambered onto the coach afterwards and returned to the hotel… there was just enough time to potter in their kitchens (and possibly tinker with their coffee makers) before lights out.

Day 4: Alexandria to Davidson

This morning was sadly the last opportunity for the choristers to dig deep into the bottomless vats of bacon at VTS. At least one of the boys managed to assemble a breakfast that contained several of his five a day, and we’re all sure he will live a long and healthy life.

We hopped on the coach at 10am and settled in for the long haul – stopping only for a quick lunch, and then to swap drivers in Greensboro. We reached our hotel in Davidson early in the evening, where the choristers were enraptured to find that they’ve been allocated suites so large that all four school dormitories would probably fit inside each one. They’ve settled in remarkably well, acquainting themselves with the inner workings of their kitchens and experimenting with their coffee makers like seasoned caffeine addicts.

Dinner was available right on our doorstep, with half the group opting for burgers whilst the other half chose Chinese. After tackling mountainous portions they could never hope to finish, the choristers staggered home to crash out on king size beds in their cavernous rooms. It’s a tough life, but they’re coping somehow.

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!

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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