Saturday, 21 May 2016

Anzac Day in the Abbey: or, a return to Angleterre – the reminiscences of a scholar

And so it was, after an early start, certain members having an adventure in Fiumicino Airport, and a fond farewell to 2 of our sopranos, we finally arrived back in London – this time flying into Gatwick rather than Heathrow. Unfortunately there was to be no rest for the wicked and it was straight off to St Mary-Le-Bow (with a short detour for those whose accommodation was on the way) for the penultimate performance of our tour. It was nice to see some familiar faces in the audience, including people who had sung with us on our previous London leg, friends from Australia and the UK, and the indomitable Yvonne Kenny.

Sunday saw us taking time off to breathe before our final engagement. For some it was an opportunity to go traipsing off to Oxford, for others a chance to sleep in or do a final bit of sightseeing around London. That afternoon, after battling the crowds of the London Marathon, we congregated back in Cheneygates for a rehearsal of the Anzac Day music. It was nice to be back in this building that had treated us so well during our first week in Britain, and, in my mind at least, it was a fitting bookend to the tour.

Anzac Day dawned and we rose with it, bright and early in order to pass through security at the Abbey. Now we were running to a strict schedule and soon enough we were in the nave doing a final rehearsal and timing our music, as well as taking a quick group photo around the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. Then, in seemingly no time at all, the doors were thrown open and the Abbey was opened.

As the gathering crowds took their seats we sang music of Schütz and Parry, as well as Australian music by Joe Twist, and our very own Owen Elsley and Brooke Shelley. Representing Australia and the community of St James’ to the world, this was our final chance to shine. And shine we did.

As our last notes died away and gravity once again took over (no doubt much to the delight of Newton, whose earthly remains we were perched atop of) we were struck with how much we had accomplished: 30 performances over the course of 27 days, comprising 52 different pieces of music. We had done it, and no one had perished or been maimed. We had evolved as a choir. All that was left now was for us to remain in place for the service proper and we would be finished.

Once the procession of dignitaries had started, to the delight of some in the choir Prince Harry passed within metres of us, and the ‘special service choir’ (comprising the men of the choir and female sopranos – the boys being otherwise indisposed) began to filter past, I came to the realisation that this would be the first service we wouldn’t be singing whilst in the Abbey; a thought met with a curious mixture of relief and sadness. After sitting through the emotionally charged service, joining in with the congregation at the hymns and belting our National Anthem with pride, it was finally time for us to relax and let our hair down.

A few members of the Abbey Choir (friends of Warren) took us out for lunch after the service and regaled us with stories of their time in the choir. It was interesting to hear about their lives, especially given the duration some of them had been there! Finally, after grabbing a few brief moments to myself, we reconvened at the Red Lion (one of over 400 pubs of that name in Great Britain, according to the sign outside) for the start of a night celebrating the end of a successful tour.

For me this has been the opportunity of a lifetime. When I first auditioned to be choral scholar with the choir I never dreamt that I would soon be jetting off on my first international trip to sing in some of the most iconic churches and cathedrals in the UK and Europe. Although being given the opportunity to visit these historic buildings – Westminster Abbey, Notre Dame, Stephansdom, and St Peter’s Basilica amongst others – is in and of itself an experience, and being afforded the opportunity to sing in them is most certainly unforgettable, it all pales in comparison to the memories made of the people it has been shared with; the friendships that have been created and strengthened with people old and new – these are the experiences I truly never want to forget. Although it was said many times on tour that “what happens on tour stays on tour”, I hope that in this case it is not true. Because of these people I have been changed for good.

–Patrick Baker

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