Tour of Sri Lanka: Return to Colombo

JakeSecond year Tenor Choral Scholar and our resident Historian, Jake Dyble, reflects on the last few days of a wonderful tour of Sri Lanka…

The service of lessons and carols at St. John’s College, Jaffna was our last singing commitment for several days. The Choral Scholars naturally viewed this hiatus as a chance to conserve energy and rest voices. Forgoing late-night use of the outdoor pool and politely refusing the free drinks offered by the hotel manager, everyone retired early to bed.

After a curiously subdued four-hour coach journey the next morning, we arrived in Anuradhapura. The ancient city has a recorded history that goes back more than 2000 years, and remains an important site for Buddhists in the present day. Unfortunately the choir’s knowledge of Buddhism was rather hazy; posting filtered snaps of our new elephant pants on Instagram was the closest most of us had thus far come to Enlightenment. Thankfully our host, Professor Senanayake, a practicing Buddhist, was on hand to help, and her commentary greatly enriched our tour of the ancient temples. The sight of these monolithic structures rising above the forest canopy was extremely impressive and had a profound effect on the Choral Scholars. Those possessed of fertile imaginations fancied themselves as Indiana Jones reborn. Unfortunately our purple umbrellas rather spoiled the illusion; those with a firmer grip on reality remarked that I was closer to Marcus Brody. Decide for yourself with this picture…!

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Our journey across Sri Lanka continued and progress was characteristically inconspicuous thanks to our sensitive demeanour and acute knowledge of local custom. I’m joking of course. We lumbered across the landscape in a ten-tonne air-conditioned chrome juggernaut, which, while guaranteeing maximum comfort, drew the eyes of attention of pretty much every other road user we passed. But this massive bulk was to prove advantageous. Thanks to unusually high rainfall, many roads were badly flooded. Our fording of vast road-lakes provided a welcome diversion on our circuitous journey back to Colombo. Unimpeded, we continued to leave a buffet-based trail of destruction behind us as we trundled from one excellent Sri Lankan dinner to another. It was all highly agreeable.

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Sigiriya was our final stop before reaching Colombo. The ruins of this fortress are located on top of a huge column of rock – on all sides lie precipitous 200-metre drops. It was constructed in the 4th century BC by a Sri Lankan prince who, having murdered his father, hoped (in vain) to escape his vengeful brother. Once at the top we were rewarded with a breathtaking view.  We could see lakes, gardens and Buddha statues in the foreground, and great mountains on the horizon, all wreathed in an unearthly mist – at least before the weather moved in. It was well worth the climb, and the long journey back to Colombo.

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Our last two nights in Sri Lanka were spent at the Pegasus Reef Beach Hotel. Many choir members began our final day with a swim in the pool or in the sea, followed by an open air breakfast. After some morning shopping, we had lunch with the Senanayake family at their home, yet another buffet. (You know you’re doing well on tour when you’re enjoying a buffet to performance ratio of about 5 to 1).

Colombo RehearsalWe were eventually reminded that the ostensible purpose of our tour was singing rather than eating. Our final concert was a rare opportunity for the Choir – a performance at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall, in front of an audience of more than 1500 people. The repertoire was mainly Christmas classics and carols, but with a few notable additions including the Gabrielli setting of the Magnificat. The audience were not particularly animated, but once again we were touched by the openness and appreciative comments of those we talked to after the performance. I particularly enjoyed talking with members of the Aquinas College Choir, a choir of young students whose leaders and conductor were drawn from their own number. They said that the performance had been very inspiring and they had been encouraged to add some of our music to their repertoire, providing a good example of the benefits of cross-cultural exchange.

We ourselves have learned a great deal from our stay in Sri Lanka and we all owe a great debt of gratitude to Mark, the Senanayake family, and all those in the UK and Sri Lanka who made the trip possible. This is not an experience that any of us will forget. The demands made on us were few: all we had to do was turn up at the coach at 3 o’clock on the 11th (and some of us didn’t even manage that!). From that point on we were led from one incredible experience to another. It is hardly possible that a student ensemble should deserve the hospitality we were shown in Sri Lanka. Hopefully our performances and workshops went at least part of the way to repaying that generosity.

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Tour of Sri Lanka: Jaffna

TomTom Rothwell, a Fourth year MML student and Counter-Tenor Choral Scholar, tells the adventures of the third leg of our tour of Sri Lanka…

Although the long bus ride up to Jaffna was mainly used to catch up on some well-earned rest, the approach to the northern province was far from dull. At the border to the formerly war-riven region, the coach was stopped at a checkpoint at which all of our passports were checked (along with those of any Sri Lankans wishing to enter the zone). It was only later that we realised that we had been granted special dispensation from government to enter the region and that Jaffna was officially closed to most foreigners. Tension was clearly still in the air, but such concerns quickly overshadowed by the region’s natural beauty.

We had been told that there was the possibility of meeting a wild elephant on he approach to Jaffna, conveniently called the Elephant Pass. Sadly, we were graced with no such experience but the constantly changing panorama jaffna workshopof lagoons, paddy fields and palm trees  was enough to charm the eye for the three hours or so which remained in our journey. Towards the late afternoon, ours wheels pulled up outside St John’s College, Jaffna, a school founded by the London Missionaries in 1823. It was here that we were warmly welcomed by the entire school community and held another workshop. This time, the groups were small enough to give each singer quite a lot of individual attention. We were struck by the enthusiasm of the singers and their ability to learn within such a short space of time.

After the workshop, we were transferred over to our hotel, a large and comparatively luxurious complex in the centre of Jaffna. We were given just enough time to shower and change into some smarter clothes before heading off (with police escort!) to the British Council where we were most generously hosted for a Festive Garden Party, although the evening heat in this, the hottest part of the country, left us Brits wondering about how ‘festive’ it could truly be. It was fascinating sharing the insights of the few Brits who had experienced the post-war tensions on a daily basis. It is clearly a very difficult situation, but the British council carries out tireless work to build up cultural relations within the region. We were presented with a vast array of Sri Lankan finger food and wine, although the main event of the evening was our short performance of Christmas numbers for the assembled company. We were very pleased to include a piece by composer Martin Stebbing, Light of the World, composed during his time in Crete. Although he himself would agree that the piece required a cathedral acoustic for its flowing wash of harmonies, we hope that our performance did it justice. The applause of the audience suggested that it went down very well. Returning to the hotel, some went to the bar for a drink, others to the pool, and others retired for a well earned sleep.

In the morning, a number of Choral Scholars headed off on a morning excursion to the beach, enjoying a pre-breakfast paddle and a trip to a tree under which Buddha reputedly reached  Enlightenment.

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After breakfast, at which we tried a cordial which can only be described to have tasted like Calpol, we set off back to St John’s College to prepare for the joint Carol Service later that evening. Building on our work done in our workshop the previous day, the rehearsal ran very smoothly, interweaving numbers by both our Choir and the choirs of St John’s and the local girls college, Chundikuli. After our hard work, we were treated to a delicious Sri Lankan lunch at the college and following this, we were kindly presented with Christmas cards.

IMG_3179The afternoon provided the opportunity for a shopping trip.  Although we were originally dropped off at a rather disappointing shopping centre offering either supermarket food or men’s suits, some members of the choir were able to visit the market at Jaffna, quite an experience, both from the point of view of the number of wares on offer, as well as the bombardment of sales pitches from all sides. In the late afternoon we returned to St. John’s College for the carol service itself. We very much enjoyed hearing the local talent on offer and felt that the service provided opportunities for genuine cultural exchange. This was topped off by another delicious supper at the school. Thank you to St John’s both for their hospitality and musical enthusiasm!

Tour of Sri Lanka: Kandy

SarahOur tour of Kandy, Sri Lanka, as remembered by Third year Musician and Soprano Choral Scholar, Sarah Hargrave, went a little like this…

Ever since the Choir was told we would be touring Sri Lanka this Christmas, our visit to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage was a point of great excitement for each and every one of us. And finally the much-talked-of moment arrived on our way to Kandy. Eagerly buying feeding tickets, we all headed straight to the feeding rings, where much joy was had feeding the babies bottles of milk and some of the older elephants with fruit. For someone who has never seen an elephant in real life before, they are quite awe-inspiring – and very big! It was so exciting to not only be able to see them, but touch and feed them! Not far off from the feeding spot, a big herd of elephants, comprising a combination of elephants orphaned from birth and those injured in the wild, waited to be taken down to the nearby river to bathe. The choir followed their path and gathered along the edge of the river to watch and take an abundance of photos with elephants as a back-drop (to the envy of many of our friends and family back home).
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Leaving the elephants to continue their bathe without us, we were each quickly distracted by the abundance of elephant trousers, poo paper, wooden elephants, leather bags and innumerable other knick-knacks being sold at the market stands and shops on the way back to the coach…

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DSCF5521While some used the coach journeys to catch up on much-needed sleep, others entertained themselves with chatting, listening to music and enjoying the stunning views outside. Every moment of the drive was filled with new beauty and glimpses of ‘normal’ Sri Lankan life, meanwhile the mountainous terrain as we approached Kandy afforded us some truly breath-taking views.  After a long drive through this countryside, we arrived in the centre of Kandy. The first sightings of wild monkeys on the streets provided great amusement as we headed to the Kandyan Cultural Centre to watch the ‘Rangahala Kandyan Dance’ show. An hour of entrancing traditional dances followed.
dinnerNot having any singing commitments that night, we all enjoyed the chance to relax, drink in hand at the bar until dinner was served – a delicious buffet-style meal provided for us at the Hotel Suisse.  Despite our tiredness, every one of us found great entertainment in being serenaded by a mariachi band while we enjoyed the abundant food.  The ‘Banana Song’ and ‘We Love Sri Lanka’ were particular hits and many took the chance to let their hair down, singing along and dancing in great style. Even Mark’s initial disgust with our enthusiastic though perhaps not very polished singing was turned to amusement with the chorus of the song ‘Who the Hell is Alice?’ Meanwhile refrains of ‘No! Banana today!’ were often to be heard throughout the rest of the tour.

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Next morning we were up bright and early, dressed in white and pale colours to visit the Temple of the Tooth. Despite slow but constant rainfall, the Temple of the Tooth was a fascinating place to visit, both culturally and historically. We were lucky to have both an excellent guide and Professor Senanayake’s commentary to enhance our understanding and enjoyment of the Temple. The Central Shrine was beautiful and the museum rooms gave a detailed history of The Tooth and the Temple.

The minibus ride, from the Temple of the Tooth to Trinity College Kandy, kicked off an afternoon of pranking, girls versus boys, in which various shoes and items of clothing were stolen (to be returned at a later time as appropriate). Once at Trinity College, we were joined by several school choirs for a two-hour workshop. Everyone learnt well and much fun was had by all, adding actions to Gardner’s arrangement of The Holly and the Ivy and learning a number of other songs such as Jingle Bells and Blue Moon.

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After a lunch kindly provided for us by Trinity College Kandy, we rehearsed with Trinity College Choir for our joint concert that evening, in which both choirs came together to sing a number of pieces, including the Sinhalese song Pudamu Geetha Mal and a new piece Ah Dearest Jesu.  Rehearsal over, we had a few hours of down time before the concert. While some enjoyed games of water volleyball in the swimming pool, others investigated the shops in town and still others enjoyed some time of quiet and relaxation at the school. The evening’s joint concert with Trinity College Choir was enjoyed by all and singing, not least because of the novelty of singing in a chapel which had no walls. Read more about our concert in the following review: http://bit.ly/1AWRQuY.

A short but cozy minibus ride brought us to a nearby hotel, where a wonderful dinner had been prepared for us by the Trinity College Old Boys’ Association and we had a chance to mingle and get to know some of the members of Trinity College Choir and past members of Trinity College.  It had been a thoroughly enjoyable but tiring day, so everyone was glad to get back to their rooms at last, although, despite our great need for sleep, high spirits and lively chatter entertained us all for some time before the rooms fell silent.

Up at 6am the following morning, we had an early but tasty breakfast at Hotel Suisse before we started our onward journey – the long drive north to Jaffna. It was, at first, a far more subdued coach journey this time, as many people took the opportunity to sleep or read quietly. We stopped along the way at Cinnamon Lodge, Habarana where tea and snacks were generously provided. cinnamon lodgeWith a little time to explore the resort, many of us wandered off to enjoy the beautiful peace and quiet, especially enjoying a bird-watching bench located up a tree and looking out across a huge marshy lake. Definitely the sort of place I could happily disappear in for a few hours to enjoy the beautiful views and peace of nature…

Tour of Sri Lanka: Colombo

SapphireSapphire Armitage, first year Musician and Soprano Choral Scholar, provides us with a recap of our first few days in Sri Lanka that were spent in the vibrant capital city, Colombo…

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The choir arrived at Colombo Airport in the blazing heat of midday, with squinting eyes and exclamations of ‘where did I pack my suncream?!’. The excitement was palpable as the lush DSCF5251 tropical landscape revealed itself during the coach transfer to Colombo. After twenty chaotic minutes spent dropping bags off at hostels, hosts and hotels, and trying to make ourselves look vaguely presentable after sixteen hours of travelling, we were whisked away to tea at the Tourist Board. We nibbled sandwiches and sipped tea as we watched the tropical sun sink into the ocean before a quick rendition of Jingle Bells. This contrast was something we would become very accustomed to over the next twelve days! A whistle-stop tour of Colombo gave us a much better sense of Sri Lanka’s leading city, as well as who in the choir could handle the sheer terror of low-flying bats and birds… A delicious buffet dinner at the Colombo Swimming Club was welcomed by all, and was the first in a long line of generously hosted meals which kept us energised throughout the tour.

Our first full day in Sri Lanka began bright and early, in order to fit in a visit to Galle Fort before running our first workshop with local school children. Some of us enjoyed the opportunity to display our parkour skills on the UNESCO Heritage Site, whilst others were happy to take photos and enjoy the balmy weather. After the next installment of incredible local delicacies at a buffet lunch kindly put on by Deco on 44, the choir was ready to run its first workshop. The young school girls appeared to enjoy the afternoon as much as we did, playing rhythm games and learning various pieces such as Blue Moon, and simpler nursery-school rhymes. Feeling buoyant after such a positive start to the tour workshops, the choir relished the chance to swim in the infinity pool at the Lighthouse Hotel, with certain members behaving in a way not unlike the young children they were teaching only an hour before! Once the frivolities were over, it was down to some serious rehearsal work, as the first concert of the tour loomed that evening. Much to everyone’s delight, the evening went very well, and we were very touched that some of the girls from the workshop came to see us perform. The concert also featured a local dance troupe, which couldn’t have contrasted more with our Western classical offerings!

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Our second full day was spent at St Thomas’ College in Colombo,Water Polo where we worked with another group of local schoolchildren. The morning was spent rehearsing in the chapel with the boys choir of St Thomas’ College for the joint Service of Lessons and Carols that afternoon, and running another workshop with pupils from local schools. During the lunch break, we enjoyed eating in the school dining hall and finding out more about life as a Sri Lankan school pupil from some of the more talkative boys. After another successful workshop in the afternoon, the choir once again took full advantage of the opportunity to swim, with some members using this chance to show off their Olympic water polo skills.

We enjoyed listening to the choir of St Thomas’ singing some well known Christmas pieces in the joint Christmas service, as well as performing some works alongside them.

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Processing DSCF5401out to the final verse of Adeste Fideles and catching the end of the striking tropical sunset was a moment none of us are likely to forget any time soon! However, one of the most memorable evenings of the trip had only just begun… Just under an hour later, we found ourselves in the courtyard of The Mount Lavinia Hotel, one of the nicest hotels in Colombo, in a tropical storm, waiting to sing in a Christmas tree, whilst a fireworks display was let off at a slightly closer distance than was comfortable. Soon, we were performing Jingle Bells and White Christmas from inside the model Christmas tree itself… None of us were quite able to process this unique combination of circumstances! Shellshocked, we moved on to a dinner with the Cambridge Sri Lanka Society at which we performed some of our shorter pieces, and ended the evening with a jolly rendition of Goodnight Sweetheart.

The third full day of the tour featured what many members will remember as the most challenging concert of the trip. The choir spent the morning hard at work rehearsing in a dance studio, and Mark took great pleasure in making the group sing to their own reflections – a traumatising experience for some. DSCF5402Lunch was hosted by the British High Commissioner, and a few members were very excited by the opportunity to get some Foreign Office interview tips. The early afternoon was spent at leisure, and most of the group chose to indulge in some retail therapy. This was a good chance for some to correct a few packing errors. Another rehearsal at the Colombo Ladies College Hall followed, and, as Mark pointed out, the pressure was on, as the concert that evening was to be filmed and recorded. The concert itself was very well received (read a charming review here: http://bit.ly/1vfaLLY), but was made very challenging by the heat on stage. The audience was full of positive feedback however, and the main solos from Jaliya, Declan and Julia were a particular highlight.

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The choir was treated to another incredible buffet meal post-concert, and then a much needed night of sleep before moving on to Kandy in the morning…

Our Trip to the North

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First year medic and soprano choral scholar, Hattie Hunter, reports on the wonderful few days spent in her home county of Yorkshire.

Departing from the dreaming spires of Oxford after our concert in aid of the Muze Trust with The Choir of Merton College, we began our expedition up to the dreamy fields of North Yorkshire in two rickety minibuses. Having rejected the idea of balancing our stuff on the roof, we were buried under a thick blanket of bags, suitcases, and the odd radiantly grey choir jumper. Mark’s trusty Radio 3 minibus clattered up the motorway quite zippily, but unfortunately, Alice’s Radio 2 minibus was limited to the approximate speed of a cow. This necessitated long and frequent breaks.

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After getting lost a couple of times, befriending an inquisitive cat, and getting lost a few more times, we eventually arrived at my house for a veritable feast – a combined effort from all of our kind hosts. We (read: most of us) were up bright and early the next morning to travel to Ryedale school (Tom’s host Helen made him toast to eat in the car). Although it seemed doubtful at first, the school was indeed found to contain children, and we had a super workshop with Cantarla, the school’s girls’ choir. We worked on a few pieces together, including Howells’ ‘Like as the Hart’, and Britten’s ‘Hymn to the Virgin’. It was going really well until Mark terrorised a girl by forcing her to conduct, so we had to leave while she was rushed to hospital*. Cantarla then treated us to a groovy rendition of the Agnus Dei from Bob Chilcott’s ‘Little Jazz Mass’, before a hearty lunch in the school canteen, where we all committed a massive faux pas by taking trays for our food. According to the Ryedale students, nobody ever does this twice.

After lunch, we went to Ampleforth College – mine and Max’s old school. Incredibly, it was sunny and warm, so everyone went outside to the enormous expanse of grass in the valley, where we watched the rabbits running around, played a 30 second game of frisbee, and spent half an hour trying to rescue the frisbee from a tree. Meanwhile the organ scholars stayed inside to test out the alarmingly loud trumpet stop.

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The concert, at 7.30, was a great success, and we managed not to be too mystified by the 6 second echo. The audience, who awkwardly didn’t clap for the first few pieces in fear of upsetting the monks, were startled into ovation by Bertie’s incredibly weird organ piece, and clapped delightedly from that point on. One audience member even remarked that we were better than The Sixteen (although she didn’t specify what of). After a heated stream-jumping competition at a local pub, where Declan C treated us to a remarkable impression of a frightened Wildebeest fording a river, causing a pedestrian on the other side of the road to produce his umbrella*, it was time to head back to our generous hosts for another night.

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On Tuesday, we made the most of the choir’s National Trust membership (purchased for our visit to the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland) at Rievaulx. The choir’s resident cathedral enthusiast, Xann, was overjoyed to finally visit a place that she had wanted to visit since she was a small child. However, as the choir doesn’t have English Heritage membership, we were limited to Rievaulx Terrace, and couldn’t descend the sheer drop to the Abbey. Xann looked on wistfully…

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After a quick amble round the picturesque market town of Helmsley, we then continued over the moors to Stockton-on-Tees. We were met at St Cuthbert’s Church by Fr Cooper and Margaret, who had prepared us lots of delicious sandwiches and cakes. The church’s enchanting orange carpet provided a dramatically different acoustic to Ampleforth, which worked well for our more twiddly numbers, and we had a rapturous audience, their clapping uninhibited by the prospect of irascible monks. After the concert, a quick sandwich top-up, and ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ as a final encore, we set off back to Jesus, arriving in the middle of the night, with everyone’s necks stuck at strange angles, and with a suitcase imprint on my face.

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* DISCLAIMER: Some statements in this blog post may be exaggerations or total figments of Hattie’s imagination.

Tour of Ireland: Limerick

1800394_10203303731140718_1493578143_nAnna Nicholl, a first year Geographer and Soprano Choral Scholar, writes about a fantastic few days spent in Limerick as part of the Choir’s tour of Ireland…

After a wonderful time in Dublin, the Choir departed for Limerick where we would stay in a nearby monastery. We certainly left the rain behind us and were greeted by beautiful sunshine in the idyllic setting of Glenstal Abbey. There was little time to soak up the sun, however, as we soon headed to St John’s Cathedral in Limerick to rehearse for an evening concert.

Our evening concert was scheduled as part of the Limerick City of Culture 2014. In addition to performing our own programme, we were fortunate enough to hear the atmospheric plainchant as sung by the Glenstal Abbey School Choir and a couple of uplifting gospel numbers from the University of Limerick BAVAD Gospel Choir. After receiving a double standing ovation from our audience, our very own Director, Mark Williams, was congratulated by the Glenstal Abbey School and presented with a hamper of their delicious chocolates. It was with high spirits, therefore, that we headed to the local pub where the Abbey had kindly arranged a post-concert supper – definitely what we all needed! With our time in Ireland approaching a week, drooping heads and lagging footsteps made their way back to the Abbey Guesthouse in search of a comfortable bed…

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Awaking was rather more difficult on our last full day in Ireland. With this said, the idea of getting up for breakfast at 8.15 was made infinitely better by the lure of brandy infused porridge! The morning began with an engaging tour around the grounds of the Abbey, made to look all the more glorious in the sunshine. We were told of the histories of each of the buildings and also shown some fascinating icons, stored underground, and told of their meanings. Our tour finished up in the school and just in time for the students’ morning break – an opportune moment for the request for a rendition of a couple of pieces…

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As ever, there was no time for rest as we headed towards our final concert destination of the tour: Limerick University. It was here that we were faced with the challenge of performing to an audience whilst being able to see ourselves in the opposite mirrored wall! Continuing the wonderful hospitality that has been received throughout the week, we were given a roast lunch that even the men amongst the Choir had trouble finishing. Despite this, some managed to save some room for dessert!

One of the monks from Glenstal Abbey, who had an important role in organising our events in Limerick, then took us to both King John’s Castle and St Mary’s Cathedral. The Cathedral was party to a performance of Britten’s Noah’s Flood. Not only were there seats laid out for the orchestra but a stage made to look like Noah’s Ark! This seemed a stark contrast from the bare, medieval stones of the Cathedral but made for a reminder of the modern role of Cathedrals in society.

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Our last evening was a busy one. After attending Vespers (evening prayer) sung by the monks of the Abbey, we joined together with the School Choir in a workshop. The children here were much younger than those at Methody in Belfast and were used to reading plainchant instead of SATB scores. We were therefore thoroughly integrated amongst the boys and took an active role in leading them through the music of one of Tippett’s Negro Spirituals. This was an extremely rewarding experience as by the end, the boys had picked up well the parts that they were assigned to in addition to taking heed of the advice given to them by Mark. Our influence was felt as we heard the boys heading back to their rooms whilst practicing their new found falsetto voices…

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The great Irish hospitality continued in great style as the Abbey hosted us in a beautiful room, complete with a grand piano. Although one of our Choral Scholars suggested that the piano should be locked, it wasn’t long before Mark was put under the spotlight by one of the monks who challenged him to a combined improvisation. It was quite something to behold and provided much entertainment with all of the Choir entranced in the skill of both parties. It was then the turn of the two organ scholars who opted for a more relaxing improvisation only to be replaced in favour of ‘Guess the Christmas Carol’! With our knowledge of Christmas carols and hymns exhausted, we headed to bed. Our time in Glenstal Abbey definitely ended with a bang and it was with fond memories that we departed in time to fly home from Cork.

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This has been my first tour with the Choir and all three destinations have provided unique experiences, each equally inspiring. Not only have we had an amazing time but the Choir has developed massively as a group and it would be difficult to deny that we, as an ensemble, have improved massively over the course of the tour. It is with excitement, therefore, that I look forward to the challenges of next term’s schedule.

Tour of Ireland: Dublin

maxMax Cockerill, 3rd Year Natural Scientist and Bass Choral Scholar reports on our wonderful time in Dublin this week…

Departing from titanic buildings and dramatic geology formed by the giants of Northern Ireland, we travelled south where we were greeted by the charming, historical city of Dublin. Our first call was Trinity College, where we were given a tour of their library. Few expected the wonder and awe that each of us felt upon entering that room. Books, hundreds of years old, were stacked shelf upon shelf in a room extending into the depths of history. With ancient manuscripts and autographs on display, all members of the choir found something to whet their appetite. Above all this history loomed a great arched ceiling of which perhaps the greatest feature was its polished wooden finish, sheltering the shelves below it.

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The evening concert was performed in the college’s ornately decorated common room, following a formal meal similar in grace and furnishings to the colleges of Cambridge. The choir of Trinity College Dublin first performed a short piece to the audience gathered in the common room, followed by Jesus Choir. Both were received gratefully by family of the choir and fellows of the university. We returned to our hotel, a short walk from Trinity College, in the pouring rain but such conditions did not assuage members of the choir from seeking an exciting night out in a pub near the hotel, who found a many-levelled bar, reminiscent of a tree-house, where the night’s revelries unfolded!

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The following morning, silence reigned as the choir slept, healing the wounds received from the previous night…

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In the early afternoon we were taken on a tour around the centre of Dublin by Eddie McParland, member of Jesus College Cambridge and Fellow at Trinity College Dublin. The entire history of the city’s current formation unravelled as we walked around. We were treated to a great story of corruption and greed which culminated with a visit to the Guildhall and Castle of Dublin on the river Liffey.

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Our second concert, a series of songs and readings hosted by the Teaching Centre in Dublin, was received with rapturous applause from our audience. Again, we were very grateful to Eddie McParland for reading and introducing the concert. His incredible knowledge of the city and its buildings and history had guided us during our time in Dublin and we left the following morning with a deeper understanding of the city.

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Tour of Ireland: Belfast

ImageFirst year music student and alto choral scholar Emma Kavanagh reports on the first few days of our Ireland Tour…

We began our tour to Ireland with three days in Belfast, home to two of our choral scholars, at Fisherwick Church, where our Northern Irish hosts provided a warm welcome by means of vast quantities of scones and tea. After our rehearsals we went home to our hosts, where activities varied from Jenga to having my first ever Guinness in the most Irish pub that I have ever visited! Thank you to all those who helped look after us in Belfast – everyone had so much fun and was made to feel so welcome.

The next morning we departed to visit Giant’s Causeway. Our trip was a lovely contrast to our experiences in urban Belfast – our resident geographer, Anna, was particularly overjoyed by the prospect of investigating the rock formations that make up this unique and iconic landmark.

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DSC_0016We then returned to Belfast, and gave a concert by candlelight at St. Patrick’s Church on Donegal Street. The audience was treated to a programme that varied from Purcell to Rutter, and the acoustic was wonderful to sing in.

DSC_0100On Sunday morning, we sang Mass at St. Peter’s Cathedral, where one of the choir’s many music students, Declan, received his choral training. It was quite unlike any other service that I had ever sung in, and the “obscenely loud” organ was put through its paces by our Senior Organ Scholar, Ben, who played a virtuosic Vierne toccata in the wonderful surroundings of the Cathedral. DSC_0072We were then taken on a bus tour of Belfast, including the Falls and Shankill Roads – even those who had lived in Belfast learned something new! That evening we sang evensong in St. George’s Church. I’ll never forget the chipper vergers who amused us so much before the service that we found ourselves suppressing giggles as we were about to process in! After a beautiful service, we all gathered together with everyone we met in Belfast for a fantastic party.

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Our final day in Northern Ireland was certainly rewarding – we led a workshop with the choir of Methodist College, Belfast, of which our other Belfast-residing choral scholar, Syamala, is an alumna. The Choir of Methody made a great sound, and were so engaged in their singing – we were treated to an incredible a capella rendition of the theme from Mission: Impossible, complete with actions (including ‘shooting’ a teacher)!

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We were so honoured to sing in Belfast. We hope that we will be able to return soon!

St Matthew Passion

Rehearsing for the St Matthew Passion

First year Choral Scholar Amatey Doku interviews soloist Madeleine Shaw, chorister Harry Shapiro and Senior Organ Scholar Ben Morris about Jesus College Choir’s performances of the St Matthew Passion with Britten Sinfonia.

Madeleine Shaw, Mezzo-soprano

Soloist Madeleine Shaw

Amatey: You have performed Bach’s St Matthew Passion with Jesus College Choir once before. What was the memory of that experience?

Madeleine: My most vivid memory is of the choir. Their commitment to every aspect of performing the work was so moving. It was the first time I had sung the St Matthew Passion and I was blown away to be part of the ensemble of musicians Mark had drawn together. Also the intimacy of the College Chapel lent itself so beautifully to the musical forces telling the text.

Amatey: You have known the conductor Mark Williams for some time. When have you worked with him before?

Madeleine: We have been friends for many years and he played at my wedding 5 years ago. I’ve sung at so many other weddings of mutual friends with Mark at the console and have many wonderful memories of him improvising on very eclectic combinations of melodies in a bid to entertain the congregations whilst waiting for the bride.

Amatey: As well as singing in Jesus College Chapel there will be a performance at Bury St Edmunds. Do you have personal connections with Bury St Edmunds?

Madeleine: My father was a Canon in the Cathedral for 15 years.  I grew up in the Close, was exposed to all the music making, made life-long singing friends and the rest is history. 

Harry Shapiro, Head Chorister

Head Chorister Harry Shapiro with his fellow choristers

Amatey: When did you last perform the St Matthew Passion?

Harry: About 4 years ago we sang the St Matthew Passion at King’s College with King’s College Choir. At the time I was quite a young chorister so I wasn’t too sure about all the notes but now that we’re doing it again it’s easier because of that experience.

Amatey: The mixed choirs also sang with Britten Sinfonia recently. What were your memories of that performance?

Harry: We performed Handel’s Messiah with them just before Christmas and it was a really good performance. It is an excellent orchestra and there was something exciting about us all singing and performing together.

Amatey: What is the most challenging thing about singing a piece like the St Matthew Passion?

Harry: Throughout the piece you always have to be alert and ready to come in at the right moments.  The notes and the rhythms are not always that difficult but singing in German can be a challenge, especially when you have to use sounds which you wouldn’t normally make in English!

Amatey: Will you enjoy the performance?

Harry: Yes, I will enjoy the performance. I really like performing and I like the piece, especially the last chorus.

 

Ben Morris, Senior Organ Scholar

Senior Organ Scholar Ben Morris

Amatey: The St Matthew Passion is regarded as one of Bach’s greatest works, if not one of the greatest pieces ever written. Why do you think that is the case? 

Ben: The St Matthew Passion has such a range of emotional intensity. It is obviously a very long work based on a familiar story but it manages to sustain the emotion throughout so it draws you into the piece either as a performer, listener or spectator; it gives you a real involvement in the emotional drama of the piece.

Amatey: Which moment for you in the piece encapsulates his genius as a composer?

I don’t think I can choose just one so I hope you’ll let me choose one from each part. In the first part, near the end, when Jesus has just been arrested there is a very still and calm duet between the soprano and alto punctuated by the chorus calling for Jesus not to be bound. This then leads suddenly into the “Thunder and Lightning” moment which is an extraordinary moment of extreme intensity and tension which seems to come out of nowhere. In the second part, just after Jesus has died, bearing in mind that there would be many ways to set that part of the story, Bach chooses to use the “Passion Chorale” melody which has recurred throughout the piece, but it doesn’t seem repetitive because of the way Bach reworks it each time.  That moment is reworked to bring out the complete anguish of the situation. The way Bach is able to manipulate the one tune throughout the whole piece and bring it to a climax at that one moment is very moving and effective.

Amatey: You played with Britten Sinfonia for Jesus College Choir’s performance of Handel’s Messiah last year. What is it like playing with Britten Sinfonia?

Ben: For someone of my age and experience, it is both very daunting and very exciting; daunting, because they are such a high quality group and work very well within themselves. So to have to come in quite at the last and fit in with that seems quite scary. At the same time the musicality and ability of all those players affects you and draws you in which is also very exciting to be a part of.

Amatey: What should the audience expect from the performance?

Ben: I don’t think the St Matthew Passion is a piece you look forward to in the same way you look forward to other pieces. Obviously it is full of extraordinarily beautiful and moving music but at the same time its can be a difficult experience because of the emotional intensity and the sheer length. What you get from it is to be touched by the whole experience and brought into it as well as being able to experience the amazing music.

Rehearsing with the Britten Sinfonia

FOR MORE INFORMATION AND TICKETS:

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