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…!

Anuradhapura

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.

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…