0 Day 14: Last day in Toronto

So we arrived at the last full day of the tour with everyone still happy and in one piece – as one of our hosts said, if no-one’s died then you’re doing well.

Last night’s snow had completely cleared by the time the choristers headed for Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada. The aquarium nestles under the CN tower which, thanks to the thick mist, looked like a mere stalk (we’re assured the top bit is still up there). The boys adored the aquarium, particularly the tunnel where sharks seem to swim right over your shoulder under the Dangerous Lagoon. Lunch was had at a pizza restaurant around the corner where the boys enjoyed their last feast of North American proportions. Some of the senior boys sang to the staff, and – by now on a roll – performed ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ and ‘Yesterday’ to a delighted but baffled audience on the subway afterwards. As you can see from one of the pictures above the boys were sustained on their journey to the airport by light snacks provided by their generous hosts. We were slightly alarmed at check-in when one of the sharks from Ripley’s seemed to have stashed away in one of the choristers’ bags. Dr D got a light mauling, but he’s doing fine now.

Time until boarding: 40 minutes!

1 Day 13: Concert in Toronto

The choristers began their concert day with a trip uptown to the Ontario Science Centre. This afforded the chance to test their wits against six floors of interactive exhibits, although they were very sad to find that the shop had closed. Better than any shop was the small pile of frozen snow found outside when we exited, which immediately lured the boys in to throw, kick and sculpt. There wasn’t much of it left by the time they finished but there was time for a few selfies before it disappeared.

We battled the Sunday dim sum crowd and managed to secure tables at a nearby Chinese restaurant for lunch. Wave after wave of enticing food appeared (there were even vegetables), which was just the right thing to energise the choristers before the final rehearsal of the tour at 3pm. As with Davidson we have visited Grace Church before (2011 and 2014) and have good musical friends here. It was a delight to be joined for part of the programme by the excellent church choirs, who sounded in very fine voice when we heard them rehearsing this morning. It was a bittersweet experience to share supper with them… we have enjoyed many delicious meals as church guests over the past two weeks, and this will be our last.

There was just time for some basketball in the gym under the church (why isn’t there one of these under the cathedral at home?) before the choir’s final performance. This went down a storm to a packed church, who were even kind enough to cheer as the choir came on for the second half – what a great welcome we have had here! We are delighted that the choirs at Grace are coming to sing at Christ Church in August, and look forward to welcoming them to Oxford. Huge thanks go to Rob, Stephen and the hosts for making the final leg of the tour work so well for us.

As we all departed snow was falling thickly. If this continues through the night we may end up with drifts so deep that not even a chorister can kick through them. It could be an interesting final day!

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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1 Day 12: Minneapolis to Toronto

Our final morning in Minneapolis was spent at the Mill City Museum which – as a temple to the Minneapolitan flour industry – might not initially seem the best way to spend an hour or two. Any apprehensions were soon dispelled as the choir found themselves riding up and down a grain elevator (pictured above), gazing over the only waterfall on the Mississippi and finding out quite how explosive flour really is. Our visit to the museum was made even better by the busy farmers’ market outside where (true to form) the choristers immediately located plate after plate of free samples. After sausage, bread, kale and micro-greens they hardly needed their excellent lunch at the Midtown Global Market, and before we knew it it was time to head for the airport.

The antics of Air Canada made our transit through the terminal much more exciting. They first refused to check the group in under one credit card (necessitating a grumpy and laborious transaction for each of us) and then bumped Mrs Darlington and matron off the flight. After a tense stand-off things were finally resolved at the gate, and everyone climbed onto a tiny and distinctly crumb-filled aircraft without needing to resort to stowing away. We touched down in Toronto as the sun was setting, then spent a good hour passing an interminable series of desks giving and receiving small pieces of paper. The authorities must have decided they liked us as we were eventually allowed into the country.

A car accident held our coach up on the freeway (sound familiar?) and we seemed to spend an eternity taking the scenic route through Toronto’s outlying neighbourhoods. Our patient hosts were, however, waiting to greet us when we arrived at Grace Church, and we were very glad to be on our way towards the comfort of Canadian homestays. Tomorrow: our final concert day!

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!

0 Day 11: Concert in St Paul

We’re becoming rather blasé about the depredations of the weather, so when we found a blizzard blowing this morning it put no dampener on plans to set off for the Mall of America. It’s the largest mall in the US, with a theme park, an aquarium, cinemas, shops and restaurants spread over 5.6 million square feet. The choristers’ financial reserves are dwindling, but they hunted dollar bills from crevices in their bags and fanned out in search of bargains. When the bus collected us at 2.30pm it became apparent that most purchases followed a theme, as the radiant boys exhorted each other to write with electric shock pens, wound invisible wire around ankles and brandished electrically-charged chewing gum. Essentially the choristers are well on their way to becoming Bond villains, and I recommend that anyone coming into contact with them should stay at a safe distance.

Some of the loveliest occasions on a tour like this are the moments when we get to meet other musicians. The choristers arrived at Hamline Church this afternoon for a rendez-vous with members of the North Star Boys’ Choir, a delightful group known for its roots in European vocal traditions. The choirs sang to each other and had time to chat, although there was nearly a diplomatic incident when one of the Christ Church boys asked for an autograph and proffered an electric shock pen…

After rehearsals (and the presentation of some rather eccentric gifts to Dr Darlington) we sat down to a seemingly endless spread of delicious food kindly provided by our hosts, which provided the necessary energy for the evening’s concert. Fuelled by a dozen kinds of cookie the choir was in terrific voice – and particularly glad of Hamline’s generous acoustic, since the concert is to be broadcast by Minnesota Public Radio. Very many thanks go to John and Joanne Wahlstrom, Matt Mehaffey, Mark Johnson, the Minnesota Boychoir and the whole community here at Hamline for looking after us, for making us feel so personally welcomed and for ensuring everything has gone so smoothly. We’ve had a lot of fun in the Twin Cities and can’t believe it’s nearly time to go!

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 10: Exchange day with the Minnesota Boychoir

We spoke too soon about the snow. Early in the morning our hosts dropped us off at Hamline Church, with familiar white stuff swirling in the wind. We keep being told we’ve brought these unseasonal snow showers with us – it was much the same in Chicago – and this is baffling, since we’re quite sure it was hot and sunny when we left Charlotte…

The choristers, undaunted by the chill, poured off the coach at Como Park for an energetic session of running, throwing and catching (and falling over), which functioned as the warm-up to their high-octane day at the Waterpark of America. We were very glad to be joined there by some of our hosts from the Minnesota Boychoir. As well as providing flumes, wave machines, surfing and body-boarding, the Waterpark gave us the most surreal dining experience of the tour yet: the opportunity to eat hotdogs at picnic benches whilst clad in dripping wet pool gear, with water lapping at our feet.

Late in the afternoon the choristers travelled to Concordia University, where they were met by the gentlemen of the choir and many more members of the Minnesota Boychoir. We were delighted to have the chance to hear this thriving group perform, as well as getting to meet them socially over dinner. The Christ Church team responded by performing Parsons’ ‘Ave Maria’, and the choristers joined Boychoir members for music games and further singing together. (Countless friendships were quickly forged over the tentative sharing of freeze-dried ‘astronaut’ ice cream – a talking point if ever there was one.)

We’re incredibly grateful for the outstandingly warm welcome we’ve received from the Minnesota Boychoir and their director, Mark. There’s such passion for music here, and we immediately felt very much at home. Thank you!

1 Day 9: Chicago to Minneapolis

We left Chicago this morning in the pouring rain, waved off by our lovely hosts in La Grange and feeling that we’d definitely experienced the full range of weather that Lake Michigan could throw at us.

There’s a limited amount that can be said about our 8-hour coach trip to the Twin Cities, other than that we made it here in one piece. We saw swathes of rural Wisconsin that probably aren’t on the average tourist’s itinerary, passing places with evocative names like Black River Falls and Elk Mound (plus the Ho Chunk Casino, which seemed to be advertised every few miles). There was a thrilling moment somewhere around Wisconsin Dells when the coach WiFi password was discovered… every gadget came out and there was a flurry of connection with the outside world, though the signal gave up the ghost before too long. Alternative entertainment was offered by the capricious air conditioning system, which appeared to have two settings: tropical and arctic.

Slightly cramped and bent we emerged from the coach at our destination at 5pm, although one or two of the boys seemed to have developed Stockholm syndrome and were by this stage difficult to eject from their seats. We were given a superb welcome at a reception in Mendota Heights, where a lavish supper awaited us. The fulsome salad bar allowed the boys to make amends for nutritional sins committed over lunch at the rest stop (and an adapted ‘five a day’ list has been agreed for choristers on tour: burgers, fries, pizza, milkshake and cookies).

After eating as much greenery as we could manage we were spirited away by our charming new hosts, already feeling well on the way to recovery from the epic midwestern journey. It’s not even snowing here (yet)!

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!