The tour to Eastern Europe introduced an important element, home hosting, and with it an insight into the traditions and fortunes of three adjacent countries at the time of the “Velvet Revolution.”
Language barriers were sometimes a problem: I remember the chilling feeling on our arrival as my wife and I were driven at high speed through the streets of downtown Budapest by our taciturn leather-jacketed host.
Virtually no words were exchanged, but it was to turn into a happy stay, partly because of the warm hospitality of his wife, a smiling and motherly person who would fold her arms and watch as we ate one of her delicious meals, always laced with paprika. We had a rather wonderful courier on this tour, Mishka, who taught us on the coach, line by line, how to correctly pronounce the Kodaly song “Esti Dal”.
We sang it in the glorious Matthias Church along with music by local composer Lajos Bardos: the church representative showed me into the choir vestry, for Bardos was organist there for many years, and there were sets of his music on the shelves, some hand written. His “Szello Zug Tavol” was another number we dared to include in our programme: we needn’t have worried, for the Hungarians love their singing and their native music, however it is performed.
In Prague our hosts were the families of the Radost Choir-“radost” means joy, and it was good for us to be singing alongside a nationally famous children’s choir: they sang, they clapped, they danced, they were joyous and always performed without music.
We gave a concert in the fantastic St Barbara Church in Kutna Hora, where a scene from Kafka’s The Trial was filmed. A gothic church of cathedral-like proportions it’s a wonderful venue for a choral concert. We rehearsed many of our “Golden Oldies” up in the West End Gallery with the organ at full throttle: Parry’s “I was Glad”, Bullock’s “Give us the wings of faith”, and the acoustics were mind-blowing.
I could hear someone speaking loudly from below, and asked Mishka if it was a choral enthusiast responding to our glorious singing. “No” said Mishka, “It’s the parish priest, and he’s saying that if we don’t stop this unholy racket, he will close the church!” Some serious diplomacy was quickly required. We did the concert and at the end I took all the seven soloists to a stall selling ice creams. Seven ice-creams cost me about a pound: that was Czechoslovakia in 1990.
The final leg of the tour was Vienna, and our hosts were a group of dance enthusiasts, the Austrian equivalent of Morris dancers. At one point we sang for about half an hour in St Stephen’s Cathedral (where Haydn was a chorister) to an audience of tourists slowly rotating around the building. “Our next anthem” I said to a large party of Japanese tourists “is by William Byrd.” When I turned round again to announce the next piece our audience had completely changed nationality: a strange experience.
Our Tour to the U.S.A. was without doubt the most ambitious and extensive of our ventures. Home stays again and a focus on American places with the name Marlborough-there was Marlborough New York State and Marlborough Massachusetts, and we sang Evensong in Washington Cathedral. The temperature there was a problem and I have a clear visual memory of the choir wafting a sea of copies over their faces to try to keep themselves cool.
The weather was dramatic on our visit to the New Haven district: as we arrived at our destination hailstones as big as golf balls were hammering on the roof: it was classified as a tornado. My wife and I were driven to our homestay on Trimble Street by a nervous hostess who suggested we settle in and I try her Bluthner Grand while she attempted to garage her car. As I tinkled away I could hear loud snapping sounds outside: nineteen plane trees had been knocked over in a matter of minutes.
The supposed meeting that evening with concert organiser Julie Sheier and some of our staff had to be carefully re-routed to avoid road blockages, but it happened, and we made plans for our performance in The Starlight Festival in Yale’s impressive Battell Chapel. It seems that because of ongoing building alterations, unexpected cancellations and other problems-to say nothing of the current tornado-several events had been axed.
We gave a good concert in a steamy atmosphere and people came to hear us. “I hope we were up to the standard of the Starlight Festival” I said to Mr. Scheier, gently fishing for a complement:
“Heavens to Betsy, Robin” he said quietly, “you were the goddam Festival!”
His wife Marge was a tiny bird-like woman who drove their enormous Oldsmobile at quite a lick: I was never quite sure whether she could actually see over the steering wheel!
At Shawnee-on-Delaware, home of Marlborough parents the Kirkwoods and the site of their amazing deluxe Holiday Inn and Golf resort the youngsters were in seventh heaven.
They had interconnecting phones, a variety of water sports, a golf course and much more.
Before we could even unpack we were ushered into the Shawnee Playhouse with box suppers and treated to a polished performance of “Anything Goes” by an off-Broadway company. It was this show that inspired Adrian Leang to put on this musical on our return to Marlborough.
In Spain we sang in Monserrat Abbey, and some of us were bowled over by the monks singing beautiful plainsong in the late afternoon. In Portugal we stayed in a monastic building whose pre-breakfast alarm call was ethereal choral music piped through the walls. Our concert there was set for 9.15 p.m. at which point, apart from the priest and myself, no one had appeared at the church doors. We need to be patient was his advice, and sure enough, by about 10.00 p.m., we had a respectable audience.
We lost quite a few of the choir in Castelo da Vide after one performance, quite a worry until we heard some of our repertoire being sung in the garden of a local hostelry….
The mixed repertoire we sang on these tours and the opportunity to offer a sample of it to our audiences inspired a series of CDs we made with Priory Records, the best of which was “From Advent to Christmas”, which I believe is still available to purchase from the College. Neil Collier, the recording engineer, was a stickler for detail, and he would have us go over pieces or sections of them many times. He needed absolute silence from us before and after each take, yet there were still faint creaks and knocking noises, which eventually he concluded was the chapel itself responding to “atmospheric pressure.”
Perhaps more than any others the two Tours to Italy captured the mixture of magical moments and crazy happenings that were a regular feature of these enterprises.
Whether it is the heat, Italian bureaucracy or a tendency towards “manana” there is always the possibility of a banana skin: a wedding clashing with an afternoon rehearsal, a funeral that must take precedence over a concert, or just a breakdown of communication.
In one “recce” the affable church official greeted us with a big smile. As we went over arrangements for our upcoming concert, our organist began looking nervously around for some evidence of organ pipes, or even a console. “Mi scusi, signore… but where is the organ here?” I said, knowing that Parry’s “I was glad” was on the menu. “I have it here” he replied confidently, “Casio Keyboard Speciale!” and there it was, under his arm.
Singing a joint concert in Feltre Cathedral in Northern Italy with a local choir, we found ourselves double-booked with them at the afternoon rehearsal. They were already in place at the east end so we went into the gallery: cacophony ensued. We had no time to rehearse Britten’s “Missa Brevis” for high voices with the somewhat eccentric organ and so left it to chance at the concert. The Sanctus begins with a soft chord on the organ: with a change of registration this chord becomes quite loud, then louder still, as the voices begin their bell-like chant. The soft chord was eerily ghostly, the quite loud chord rather strident and the loud chord: well at this point plumes of white dust cascaded down from unused pipes and the girls standing in front of me disappeared in paroxysms of uncontrollable hysterics.
On another of these trips my wife and I were sitting looking out from St Mark’s Square in Venice to the waters beyond. “Given that I am supposed to be the nurse on this Tour, I don’t seem to be justifying my role” she said, as we soaked up the balmy atmosphere.
A member of the shell appeared unsteadily in front of us. “Good afternoon!” he mumbled and was promptly sick all over Mrs. Nelson. We learnt that since leaving England he had stowed away a bottle of white wine in his suitcase, saving the moment to drink it until a boiling hot afternoon in the middle of Venice. “Thank you, William, thank you very much!” my wife muttered between clenched teeth as we dragged him through the walkways and bridges of Venice to get him back to our accommodation. I have seldom seen her that angry!
Approaching by vaporetto dressed in our robes and singing in the heat of the afternoon in a church near the end of my last Italian Tour I remember being appalled at the lacklustre singing as we rehearsed the anthem “Lift up your heads, o ye Gates!” It was out of tune and devoid of any kind of animation. Knowing that there was a beautiful Tiepolo fresco on the ceiling I told them to sing the opening phrase again and not look up until the words “Lift Up your Heads.” They did so, and it was better, well just for a minute or so.
At the end of the concert there I smiled at the elderly “attendente della chiesa” as we left. She tugged at my cassock and whispered gently: “Bellissimo, maestro!”
Robin Nelson May 2020: to be continued…..