England welcomes the choir from the Antipodes
We were welcomed with some hesitancy, perhaps from previous Australian choir tours to the UK, where it seemed The Choir of St James’ King Street, on our first tour to the UK and Europe, had to prove our worthiness to sing in three of the great churches of England.
As part of the extended family of the regular choir, I embraced this wonderful opportunity with great excitement and trepidation. The gravity of the lack of musical training and experience compared to the others in the choir made me tremble fearfully. It is a delicate situation for the choir to have additional members like me slot in comfortably and bound by uncertainty I was acutely aware I needed to sing well to avoid causing any damage!
All fears melt away once you walk through the cloisters, past the curious crowds of tourists, through the great wooden door into the Abbey, where even more curious tourists and expert professionals eye you up and down, walk under the glorious organ loft and into the quire. As you stand in the choir stalls, heart in mouth, it is not the pressure of the singing act you are about the commence that hits you, but the history and utter beauty of the place you are standing. Daily office has been sung in the Abbey since the tenth century by the first monks, to the present day, even by our illustrious Director of Music himself. And here we are, continuing this beautiful tradition in our own humble way, the choir from Sydney, Australia. Our mouths open, our voices release, our song is upliftingly beautiful, our choir is exquisite. Singing the Lord’s song in a strange land, all heads turn our way, mesmerised. We pass the test.
It felt so natural, arriving at the Abbey, rehearsing in Cheyneygates prior to assembling in the cloisters to be met by our verger, then to enter the Abbey, to a prayer by the residing Canon-in-residence prior to commencing the service. Awesome, and so humbling. A complete privilege. The work load incredible. There wasn’t a great deal of time for sightseeing and exploring one of the greatest cities of the world, as the Choir sang five Evensongs, one Matins and two Eucharists in five days.
Some services were harder work than others, but each service was sung from the heart and the congregation (and perhaps more importantly the clergy and vergers) were enthralled by our singing and generously embraced our presence with enjoyment and thanks. We may be fortunate enough to receive an invitation to return once again to this monument of the Church and choral music.
As the sun set on a beautiful spring day in April, we contemplated the next parts of our tour. Would we have sung the highlight of our tour already?
I love Winchester. I have since I visited in 2010. The region grows the best watercress. Winchester is another seriously significant city in English history, and the Cathedral is splendid, with the longest nave in Europe. Some of the cathedral was under scaffolding, which did nothing to dampen our enthusiasm for singing there. A world premiere for a certain Mr Elsley, meeting friends and pupils of Kenneth Leighton and a drop in from our dear friends Andy Lumsden and David Hurley of King Singers fame made our two evensong services here intimate and homely. The Wykeham Arms must be one of the most inviting pubs in South England; take your dog!
Leaving Winchester, we drove past Stonehenge, stopped quickly in Salisbury (Salisbury Cathedral with the highest spire in the UK) and on to Exeter by an expert coach driver.
Exeter cathedral is supremely elegant and the Choir seemed to thoroughly enjoy singing there; I for one found the quire the most manageable space to sing in. The cathedral staff seemed the warmest and enthusiastic of our tour; holding a small reception for us, and engaging with great interest with each of us. I think they’d like to have us back; we proved our worth easily.
What really seemed to make us embrace Exeter with such affection was the family like hospitality shown to us through Warren’s close friends as ex lay vicars and choral scholars from when he was a choral scholar. Lucian Nethsingha seemed so intrigued by us; Paul Morgan turned pages for Marko, and Phil and Nicky Hobbs were consummate hosts and generous in so many ways. For us it felt like family, and indeed we did not necessarily sing the highlight of our tour at the start.
It has been a privilege to be able to sing with the Choir on this tour, and such a deep felt honour to be able to sing daily office in these wonderful churches, and it is only through the opportunities that Warren has given us at St James’ to have been able to achieve such a dream, and with that we all give our gratitude and appreciation.