Day 8 and Day 9: North Carolina to Chicago

 

The boys began Day 8 at leisure, tinkering with their coffee-machines and testing the acoustic limits of the hotel swimming pool. In the afternoon a bus conveyed us to Davidson College Presbyterian Church, where warm sunshine and picture-perfect blossom reminded us precisely why we love returning to this corner of North Carolina. After a seriously loud rehearsal with members of several local choirs (not to mention an impressive brass section), the choristers readied themselves for the performance by consuming meatloaf and chocolate cake. Thrilled to receive yet another standing ovation, the boys had just enough post-concert energy to pack their suitcases in preparation for an early start.

Roused at an unearthly hour to beat the rush-hour traffic, we were very relieved to arrive at Charlotte airport in good time for our 10.35am flight to Chicago. The final minutes of the journey across Lake Michigan provided the opportunity for incredible photographs of the city skyline, and the choristers were pleased by how quickly we exited O’Hare after their experiences at Newark. First priority: lunch in a café on Millenium Park. Our pancakes arrived in stacks of seven, our hash browns were measured in square feet, and several boys dined out of vessels suspiciously reminiscent of buckets. The choristers – ever alert – wandered straight out of the restaurant into the path of a roving Fox News crew. Within seconds the reporter was lured by the boys’ siren call, and before we quite knew what was happening they were singing ‘Our love is here to stay’ on live TV. A gracious group interview was granted before the group was filmed climbing onto the bus to be whisked away for a Very Important Trip to the shopping mall.

 

 

A diplomatic account of the final stages of Day 9 might mention that the choir faced certain logistical challenges, which nonetheless didn’t prevent a successful performance at the University Club of Chicago. It might gloss over the lost music, lost bags, desperate circuits of a bus that could not park, the dining tables under which the tired, sweaty choir members changed, the lift where Dr D disapparated, and the wedging incident in the revolving doors. Blitz spirit prevailed and all the lost things were (eventually) found again. Tired but victorious, the choristers wended their way to LaGrange to meet their homestays at the end of the evening. Luckily they were just about able to find room for dinner.

Days 6 and 7: Alexandria, plus coach to Carolina

Our sixth day on tour began a little earlier than I would have liked, as I awoke at 6.30am in order to reserve tickets for the newly-opened National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Some might say this system seems a little strange, but who am I to comment? In any case, it turned out to have absolutely been worth this relatively minor hardship, as the museum itself was really fantastic – genuinely one of the best I’ve ever been to. Do go if you get the chance (and have a reliable alarm clock). We also took in the Museum of African Art before making a return visit to Woodward Takeout Food for the Piggly Wiggly sandwich, which Ed and I had previously eaten when we were on tour here two years ago. It has definitely become larger in the meantime – so much so that Sam and Ed were unable to finish theirs, although obviously I saw mine off with room to spare.

We were soon back to the Seminary to rehearse for the evening concert – as the programme was the same as for New York, it was only necessary to top and tail a few items and cover a couple of issues – as well as get used to the acoustic, which was rather different to Friday’s. After a few post-rehearsal rounds of Doris-Ball, for which Stephen deigned to join us (he is surprisingly good at this sport) we had an energising dinner of meatloaf, vegetables and cake. The concert itself was very successful – we are by now very familiar with all the music and the whole thing felt particularly organic and fluid. It seems the audience felt the same way, as we received a standing ovation at the conclusion (making it two out of two so far) . A post-concert reception followed before we retired (not out) to the Seminary’s convivial bar.

The next day we drove all the way from Washington to Davidson, North Carolina. This was a rather long journey, which was temporarily improved by the discovery of ‘Fried Chicken Eggs Benedict’ on the menu at lunch, then brought back down to earth by the arrival of said dish. Ladies and gentlemen, I implore you, if you find yourselves at a Cracker Barrel in the near future – do not order this meal. Upon arrival in Davidson, Sam and I were taken out by our wonderful host to a lip-smacking barbecue joint and then on to a microbrewery where we drank beers with flavours such as a brown mocha, a sour lemon and mint, and a tropical IPA – a really excellent conclusion to a long day. Tomorrow – concert number three!

Day 6 and Day 7: Virginia to North Carolina

 

Things seemed to have moved at a languid pace for a few days, but on Day 6 the choristers were transformed once more from ambling tourists to professional performers. This metamorphosis was aided by the breakfast of the boys’ dreams, and – having been reminded not to eat more than they could lift – the pancake-filled choristers spent most of the day working hard in preparation for the evening’s concert.

The performance was streamed live on the internet, which was just as well since there wasn’t a spare seat in the house! A warm welcome from the Dean of VTS was matched by two rousing standing ovations from our delighted audience. The boys were only too glad to accept an invitation to the post-concert reception, where they discussed the highs and lows of being an international celebrity (and managed not to drink any wine).

On Day 7 the kind folks at VTS produced fresh blueberry waffles for our final breakfast. The choristers bade a sad farewell to the dining hall’s groaning tables, and climbed aboard a coach for the long journey south. Along our route the boys stripped bare a Cracker Barrel gift-shop in Virginia, and piled into the drive-thru of a North Carolinian Wendy’s to pick up restorative milkshakes. We were pleased to notice a slight improvement in temperature at each rest stop, and by the time we reached Davidson it was finally possible to remove our hats and gloves.

We were delighted to be met at our hotel by Lisa Gray of WDAV, who has played such a vital role in bringing the choir to this part of the world over the past decade. The boys were soon checked into their rooms (or rather ‘suites’, since our palatial accommodation includes lounge, kitchen, bedroom and showers the size of a bus stop) and sitting down to a sumptuous dinner of pulled pork and beans. They certainly slept soundly tonight!

Day 5: Except the Lord build the White House

Sunday was to be our only day on tour entirely free of musical obligations. We breakfasted on blueberry bagels, fruits (for which our gastric systems were all very grateful), yoghurts and various toasts – our illustrious conductor managing to not so much toast his toast as entirely cremate it. It was a gorgeous day in Washington and we split up to do various gorgeous things; some went to explore the city while others began their day at the Museum of American Art, where we were lucky enough to see the recent Barack Obama portrait and a hallway made entirely out of fabric.

When in unknown cities, I always enjoy researching the best places to get lunch, which is normally a fairly successful approach but has also given mea reputationfor leading friends to restaurants which are unfortunately closed. Today’s search of the Internet had thrown up a barbecue restaurant in Columbia Heights, which is not very central, but I insisted that we go there anyway because that’s the kind of chap I am. Fortunately I was entirely vindicated in this, with Will Anderson declaring it ‘the best brisket I have ever had’, which somewhat tempered his earlier comment that I was ‘the worst friend he had ever had’.

We of course then needed to walk off the effect of several pounds of meat inside us, so we set off to take a turn round all the monuments that Washington has to offer. This was rather a stop-start process, as different members of the groups had to go to the toilet seemingly every ten minutes, but it did at least mean we were able to rest our weary feet every so often. It is currently cherry blossom season in DC (I had previously had no idea that this was a thing) and we were delighted to be able to walk through the blossoming trees for over a mile, before ending our day at the Museum of Air and Space (I can confirm that it is indeed full of both airs and spaces).

Our evening was spent at Nationals Park watching the Washington Nationals take on the mighty New York Mets at baseball. Cockney choral scholar Nick Cornforth tried his best to repurpose various Fulham football chants for the baseball with various degrees of success. Although not quite cricket (as it were) it was still immensely enjoyable and we were very sorry to see the Nationals lose by only one run (a point? a goal? Who knows). Do watch today’s video as it is full of exciting and stimulating content. No, honestly.

Day 4: Hymn to the Virginia

I must apologise in advance for the lack of content in today’s blog post; we have been on a coach all day and there is consequently not a huge amount to report. However, I will endeavour to fill you in on what did happen in an exciting and stimulating manner.

As we were not due to depart for Washington until 11.30am, this gave us some free time in the morning; some gentlemen went to view the exterior of the apartment building in popular 90s sitcom Friends (particularly appropriate, seeing as we are all such good friends on this tour) while Nick Cornforth made a trip to Anthropologie to buy some jewellery (he is very cosmopolitan). Perennial latecomer Tom Lowen returned to our accommodation a whole five minutes before departure and performed some of the speediest packing the world is ever likely to see. After driving around central Manhattan for an hour and a half we finally made it to the freeway for the long (ish) journey to Virginia. This was by and large uneventful; I was treated to a twenty minute lecture by the chorister in front of me on the use of continuo in the late 16th century, while those further behind me enjoyed three hours of The Moral Maze with bass choral scholar Aidan Atkinson. We paused at the Walt Whitman Service Area for lunch (we’re looking forward to seeing Watford Gap renamed the Thomas Hardy Service Area) before arriving at Virginia Theological Seminary for dinner, a few rounds of Doris-Ball (look out for future posts explaining the rules of this) and an early night for boys and men alike. If you’re interested in seeing what the Walt Whitman service were like, do watch the above video. Below picture: alto lay clerk Sam Mitchell breaking the door handle of our accommodation. He is Australian, which explains a lot.

 

Day 4 and Day 5: New York to Washington DC

On our final morning in New York the choristers picked up some last-minute souvenirs before boarding a coach for the unexpectedly lengthy trip to Washington DC. Road closures, traffic jams, and a heavy lunch at the Walt Whitman Service Area – undoubtedly one of the most iconic sights on the New Jersey turnpike – all took their toll, so we were very relieved when the coach finally edged its way into the beautiful grounds of Virginia Theological Seminary.

VTS hosted the choir on their last tour in 2016, and the boys were looking forward to reacquainting themselves with its legendary food. After sinking burgers, cookies and root beer (there was definitely some salad on most of the plates) there was just time for a quick run-around on the lawns before bed.

On Day 5 we woke to a restorative breakfast of bagels, cereal, fruit and yoghurt, before setting off for a day of sight-seeing. The choristers’ first stop was the International Spy Museum in Downtown Washington, a cavernous collection of gadgets and interactive exhibits that laid bare the secrets of espionage. The boys assumed new identities upon entering the museum, and I’m fairly sure even the best KGB interrogator wouldn’t have seen through the disguise of ‘Irene’.

 

 

The choristers kitted themselves out with as many  devices as they could carry from the museum gift shop (most of which delivered electric shocks), then headed to the National Mall for a picnic in the sunshine. We picked up ice creams then took a stroll to see the obligatory tourist sites (we couldn’t work out if the President was in the White House, but one of the choristers wore his  ‘Make America Great Again’ cap just in case). Before long it was time to head back to VTS for a quick rehearsal and another delicious dinner.

 

When asked for their favourite moment of the day, the boys said:

 

Alex O (Form 6): ‘I most enjoyed seeing the Capitol building and the architecture.’

Daniel (Form 8): ‘I liked the James Bond exhibit in the museum, where you tap the glass and a shark smashes into it.’

Thomas S (Form 5): ‘I liked seeing Capitol Hill, the White House and the Washington Monument, because they’re really famous and not many people get to go there.’

 

 

Day 3: O sing unto the Lord a (Fifth Ave) Nue Song

Having now been in America for two days, we have almost all shaken off our jet lag and for the most part managed to awake bright eyed and bushy tailed for another morning exploring the Big Apple. The day began with different groups of us visiting various art galleries, which led to an impromptu competition to find the strangest piece; the winner was a tie between Chris’s wooden cross mounted on a washing machine and Ed’s discovery of a box of garlic (Ed is famous in the choir for his love of the pungent herb, his plat du maison being a a particularly pungent recipe for pasta with sardines and garlic). After such exertions we were in need of some proper New York sustenance, for which some of us made a trip to Ess-A-Bagel (please do let us know if you have any idea what this name means) where we purchased salmon bagels the size and weight of a small cat.

After lunch we met once more at St Thomas’s for our pre-concert rehearsal. Stephen was very impressed with our energy and enthusiasm for moving around while singing, commenting ‘it’s like watching the New York City Ballet up there’. All I can say is that some of our undergraduate members are definitely in line for a tutu. A couple of us popped over to Brooklyn before the concert; it turned out this was not quite as close as we thought, but we all made it back for the start with over ninety seconds to spare. We were all very pleased with our singing and received our first standing ovation of the tour, which we followed with a moving rendition of Our love is here to stay, during which I was privileged to make a lot of eye contact with our illustrious conductor. Another personal highlight of the evening was idiot choral scholar Darius Latham-Koenig’s decision to process into the stalls in entirely the wrong place; it is the little things such as this which really keep us all going when on tour.

We concluded the day with a trip up the Rockefeller Centre (‘A Bunch of Handsome Rockefellas’, as my cheery alto colleague Nick Cornforth put it), which capped an entirely excellent day (although the few of us who then continued on to a bar with live bagpipers really did have a unique experience). Do watch the above video forsome live commentary and action from our day – we now proceed to Washington DC (C, the word is incarnate).

Day 3: New York

The choristers enjoyed some down-time this morning. The weather was rather gloomy, so we stayed indoors for a bloodthirsty session of Wink Murder after breakfast. The rain had stopped by mid-morning, so we made a dash to the Time Warner Center just around the corner. After some judicious browsing the boys ended up in the basement, where the free samples available in Whole Foods – specifically the ‘healthy candy’ – provided ideal entertainment.

We brought sandwiches back to the Choir School, and then set off on the increasingly familiar route to St Thomas Fifth Avenue. In Oxford just one road separates school and cathedral, and our choristers stop traffic four times a day when they process across for rehearsals. A fifteen-minute trek across bustling Manhattan streets is a much more athletic experience – and no-one stops the cars with a lollipop!

The choir worked hard throughout the afternoon to prepare for this evening’s performance. At 7.30pm the concert opened with soaring Renaissance polyphony, whilst the second half included thrilling accounts of Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’ and Walton’s ‘The Twelve’. Written for Christ Church Cathedral Choir in 1965, ‘The Twelve’ features a fiendish treble duet which was performed tonight with exquisite precision by two eleven-year-old choristers. Thunderous applause from a packed audience ensured that this was a very special evening indeed.

Tomorrow: we must pack and travel south…

Day 2: Why do the (United) Nations so furiously rage together?

Our first full day in New York began, as all the best days do, with a hearty breakfast. We ate at a charming little place near our accommodation on the Upper East Side, where one was charged according to the weight of one’s plate – this was particularly unfortunate as one of the available options was the heaviest slices of French toast we had ever seen. Revitalised, some of us set off for a walk through Central Park (one of the most central parks I have ever been in), while others visited Ground Zero, the High Line, and Little Italy. The below video should give you a rough idea of the day’s events (a lot of walking around mainly).

Later on that day, some of us were fortunate enough to be able to visit the United Nations Building – bass choral scholar Noel Li (who seemingly has friends in every city in the world) had kindly arranged for us to be given a tour with a family friend, for which we were all exceptionally grateful. We of course couldn’t let such a marvellous photo opportunity pass us by – as you can see, some of us look a little more statesmanlike than others.

All too soon it was time for our first rehearsal of the tour. We dusted off our voice boxes and proceeded to St Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, where we will be performing tomorrow night for Stephen to rehearse the items we would be performing that evening at a dinner at the Harvard Club. We then returned to our accommodation to dress for dinner; your correspondent had an unfortunate mishap whereby he could not find his bow tie, messaged the choir WhatsApp to ask if anyone had a spare one, and then burst uninvited into bass lay clerk Thomas Lowen’s room only to be told he was in fact already wearing it. I can only put this down to jet-lag; I have since been eating as many carbohydrates as possible in order to rid myself of it.

The evening’s performance was a great success; we were given a warm welcome by the American Friends of Christ Church and had an excellent dinner with them. The lay clerks were in fact so encouraged by the enthusiastic applause at the end of their close harmony set that we performed (for better or for worse) an encore, but fortunately this was equally well received. In all – a very productive day!

Day 2: New York

 

The cathedral choristers were delighted to land safely in New York yesterday, especially after a rather bumpy landing courtesy of the blustery weather (we thought Chicago was supposed to be the Windy City!). The boys are being hosted at St Thomas Choir School, which – with its dorms, dining room, TV room and table football – already feels very much like home. There was just time for takeout pizza, some tinkling on the piano and a few rounds of table tennis before bed-time.

 

The time difference doesn’t seem to have fazed the boys, who all reported having slept extremely well in their new quarters. After a breakfast of cereal and muffins (and some much-needed showers), we headed up to the American Museum of Natural History next to Central Park. Its labyrinth of rooms held a seemingly inexhaustible store of artifacts, from Native American spears to dinosaur skeletons. After visiting the Planetarium to find out how much they’d weigh on Saturn, the boys sat down to a hearty buffet lunch at the food court. There was just time to dash back to the choir school and change into uniform before the first rehearsal of the tour.

 

The choristers are currently at St Thomas Fifth Avenue running through repertoire for tomorrow’s concert. Your author may be a little biased, but the sound is terrific and you’d never guess the choir had slogged all the way across the Atlantic just yesterday. Tonight the choristers will perform at the Harvard Club of New York City, so you could definitely say they’ve hit the ground running. Many thanks to Daniel Hyde and the team at St Thomas for making us feel so welcome – we’re very excited to be in New York!