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category:Music Tours

Zurich Youth Symphony Orchestra on tour

With Tour Manager Julia Vivian

Zurich Youth Symphony Orchestra embarked upon a very successful tour of the UK in October 2018 and I shared their experiences with them throughout as courier. Beginning at the historic Snape Maltings, they performed in a joint concert with Suffolk Youth Orchestra (another regular client of ACFEA) to a sizeable and appreciative audience. It was wonderful to see both orchestras cheer each other on!  As the final concert of Suffolk’s conductor Philip Shaw, a veteran of Suffolk County Music Service, it was a special evening for all. For dinner we hired a private fish and chip van from a local supplier  –a great start to the tour!

The next day the group visited Cambridge where they experienced the delights of English weather -torrential rain and cold winds! Their second concert was in Reading at Leighton Park School where they were warmly welcomed by the Director of Music. Despite a 'small' set back on arrival as two tyres burst on the instrument van, the concert was a success and very enjoyable. 18 year old violin soloist Annouk Brönnimann impressed everyone with a spectcular performance of Khachaturian’s concerto for solo violin.

On Tuesday we travelled onwards to London via Windsor to watch the changing of the guard at Windsor Castle, followed by a traditional English afternoon tea. Our wonderful coach drivers Jaimie and Craig, very much part of the team by this point, particularly enjoyed this day. On Wednesday evening we went into the heart of the City of London to watch the BBC Symphony Orchestra in concert at the Barbican Centre. Coming from Zurich where concert programmes are often quite conservative, the modern repertoire choices were a highlight for the group and they left inspired for their final two performances.

The next day was a full day spent at James Allen Girl’s School (JAGS) in Dulwich where both orchestras joined together side by side to perform a new piece composed by Peter Gritton (Director of Music for JAGS) entitled ‘Trip to Mars’ and the final movement of Dvorak’s Symphony No.9. They made a fantastic sound which was very much appreciated by the invited audience [photo: both orchestras together in rehearsal of Trip to Mars].

The final concert at St James’s Church, Piccadilly on Friday was the perfect way to round off the tour -they performed their repertoire in full, the well-loved Dvorak Symphony No.9 “From the New World” and the lesser known Khachaturian Violin Concerto. There was a retiring collection raising money for the Otakar Kraus Music Trust - their mission is to ensure that every child and adult has access to affordable music therapy in the community, helping to improve their well-being and quality of life through creative and participatory music making. The 250 strong audience showed their appreciation with a standing ovation and donated over £1000. I’m so pleased I was able to share in the successes of this very talented youth orchestra!

Published: 18 February 2019

ABTA’s role in the Brexit negotiations

Two tour managers from ACFEA, Becky Shaftoe and Dan Porterfield, recently attended the School Travel Forum AGM in Birmingham. John de Vial, ABTA Director of Financial Protection and Financial Services, gave an excellent presentation on Brexit and the UK travel industry.  ABTA is working hard with the UK government, and across Europe, to secure the best possible outcome for the travelling public as the UK departs the European Union. ABTA is lobbying to safeguard our transport links, including our air routes, and protect valuable consumer rights. Post-Brexit, it is important that travellers continue to enjoy visa-free travel and access reciprocal healthcare arrangements currently offered by the European Health Insurance Card.

Whilst there is still much uncertainty in the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, the UK government is advising passengers to have 6 months passport validity for travel to Schengen areas beyond 29 March 2019.  As always, it is essential that passengers continue to take out adequate travel insurance in addition to carrying an EHIC.

ABTA has produced several reports on Brexit and the UK travel industry which may be accessed here:




Published: 14 January 2019

An adventure in Transylvania

Site inspections are always full of excitement and the trip with the London Schools Symphony Orchestra (LSSO) was no different. As a first time visitor I was constantly stunned by the beauty of the landscape, the variety of food and how warm and hospitable the locals were. 

We landed after midnight at a regional airport (to applause from the plane…) and sped through the streets of Sibiu to the hotel. Early next morning we visited our first concert venue, walking through the Christmas markets of this former European Capital of Culture and arrived to the sound of the Sibiu Philharmonic rehearsing Spartacus by Khachaturian. There followed our first long drive of the trip seeing many a horse and cart along the way. 

The next stop on our adventure was the tiny Saxon village of Malancrav where we visited one of many fortified churches in Transylvania with original pre-Reformation frescoes and the wonderful Apafi Mansion. Then it was on to Sighișoara, the birthplace of Dracula, where we climbed to the church atop the hill and had a lovely dinner just a short walk from Dracula’s house!

The next day we decided to take a “shortcut” from Sighișoara to Brașov and ended up on uneven country lanes with the snow falling around us – the car got quite grubby but we had beautiful views of the countryside and spotted some wildlife. We also managed a brief stop at the castle stronghold of Făgăraș where we were allowed to take the throne for a few minutes. It was very cold in the gothic Black Church in Brașov (so named because the roof and exterior walls and roof were blackened from a great fire in 1689) so we retreated to a restaurant for dinner where we were instructed to try the local tipple called palinka – a traditional fruit brandy – which was very strong but delicious!

On our final day we made the long journey to Bucharest this time stopping in Sinia for a view of the magnificent Peleș Castle as well as coffee and a cake. In Bucharest we took a tour of the Athenaeum, a landmark of the Romanian capital city (see first and last image) and afterwards I tried another traditional Romanian dish (essentially cabbage leaves stuffed with minced meat) which was very nice indeed.

So ended the site inspection to Romania. LSSO's tour in July of this year was a great success, their performances were received by appreciative audiences and the group came back with lifelong memories of the culture and hospitality of this country.

Published: 15 October 2018

The Courier Experience

Touring in Spain with Eton College, by Courier turned Tour Manager Paloma Alvar

When you accept a job as an ACFEA courier, you know that you are taking on a huge responsibility. Tour Managers work on their tours for months. They know every little detail about the group and about the destination and, when the tour is set for departure, they pass the responsibility onto the courier to ensure all runs smoothly. Eton College was the first UK school group I worked with as a courier, but I was not alone on the tour – I was accompanied by Pilar, an experienced courier who had couriered for many ACFEA tours.

Our courier role involves taking care of all of the details of the tour – all of which are tailor-made. Duties include getting in touch with hotels and restaurants beforehand to make sure all the arrangements are reconfirmed, checking that the coaches are going to be waiting for us at the right time and contacting the venues to confirm the group’s arrival and concert set-up arrangements. 

Couriers also have to be quick to understand how groups are organised and adapt to their needs. With Eton College, we went through the itinerary with Tim, the group leader, at the end of every day and he would then pass on specific instructions to the students. All the boys were very collaborative and always willing to help when it came to loading or unloading the coaches and the instrument van. Due to the high temperatures of Spain during the summer, our interaction with Nik, the van driver, was extremely important - instruments are valuable and delicate so it was important for us to ensure they were not exposed to the sun. Nik was incredibly helpful at all times and thanks to his previous experience transporting instruments for professional orchestras we were confident he knew what to do. 

The highlight of the tour is, of course, the concerts which were truly outstanding! From my personal point of view, it was a privilege to act as an interpreter for the conductor and express the group’s gratitude to the audience in my native language. After every concert members of the audience interacted with the performers, thanking them for being there. For some it was the first time they had ever seen an orchestra performing live. But it wasn’t only an emotional experience for the locals attending - one of the matrons who came on the tour couldn’t stop crying when the soloist performed Sibelius Violin Concerto. She explained to me that she had watched him grow up and now she had to say goodbye to him, after six years. Witnessing how involved the staff are with the wellbeing and development of the children had a huge impact on me.    

After ten days of hard work and little sleep, I can only say what was an incredibly rewarding experience it was - I made lots of new friends and I cannot wait for my next tour to begin!

Published: 15 September 2018

South Africa

On the road with Schola Cantorum of The Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School
By Tour Manager Julia Vivian

Christmas came early when I was given the green light to accompany Schola Cantorum on part of their tour to South Africa in October 2017. 24 hours after leaving the UK and a long journey via Dubai we arrived in Johannesburg and met our courier, Pieter. The group were tired but in good spirits and after a spot of lunch we were revived enough for a guided tour of Soweto. A visit to the Walter Sisulu Square featured the choir in an impromptu performance of Ukuthula in the brick tower (a monument to the Freedom Charter where the full principles of the charter are engraved) with its beautiful acoustic.

Next followed a visit to The Hector Pieterson Memorial and shortly after Regina Mundi, the largest Catholic Church in South Africa where the group would be taking part in Catholic Mass the next day. One of the most prominent artefacts in the church is the painting entitled "The Madonna and Child of Soweto", mostly referred to as "The Black Madonna", depicting a black Virgin Mary holding the Child Jesus (see photo). The walls still bear the signs of the shootings of the Soweto uprising of June 16, 1976, when students were shot by the police in Orlando West.

After this thought provoking tour we returned for a rest in the hotel before dinner. A fantastic lightning storm ensued on the way to dinner at the restaurant Carnivore. As the name suggests, there was a veritable feast of different meats on offer including alligator, zebra and warthog, as well as pork and chicken. The group seemed to really enjoy it!

The next morning the Schola Cantorum took part in the service at Regina Mundi where they sang alongside the church choir and were made to feel very welcome. Much of the service was in English but they did switch between many of the other regional languages. The group were given the opportunity to perform on the altar steps at the end of the service. It was moving to see the congregation taking photos and enjoying the music. After the service, the group departed for Pilanesberg in anticipation of the Safari!

Receiving the wakeup call from Pieter at 4:45 am the next day was painful to say the least, but it wasn’t long before the excitement of what was ahead dawned on me. At the game reserve we separated into two groups and almost immediately spotted our first animal - a rhino! The rhino is one of the 'big five' (the name refers to the five mammals that were the most dangerous to hunt), shortly followed by an elephant and a giraffe. Our guide then received a call over the radio – lions had been spotted! We raced through the park and arrived in time to see two male lions wandering around – it was marvellous (and unusual) to see them so active. Before too long the morning game drive was over and we were on our way to Sun City for a visit to the Valley of the Waves where the boys made the most of the water slides (I only went on the slower ones!).

Back at the game reserve for the evening drive it became clear that our driver was looking for something and sure enough we found it – a leopard – the rarest of the big five! What a privilege! There were various groups vying for a good spot but the leopard managed to evade everyone and disappeared after about 15 minutes. It was ok though because as the sun was setting we came across three cheetahs (see photo) which was probably my favourite part of the whole day. The reserve was silent apart from their calls to each other.

Dinner was a BBQ in the middle of the park (guarded by a man with a gun!) and followed by a campfire where the group sang a few songs together. It was a really memorable day.

The next day we said goodbye to Pilanesberg and made the journey to George on the Garden Route. After a short rehearsal the choir performed in a joint concert with the South Cape Children’s Choir and they sang Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus together. It was a joy to watch these two diverse choirs sing together, even if I was occasionally distracted by the bat flying around in the rafters! The venue was wonderful and the audience gave both groups a standing ovation!

On Wednesday, we ventured over the Outeniqua Mountains (where the weather changed dramatically) towards the Cango Caves at Oudtshoorn stopping at an Ostrich Farm along the way. Here the group had the opportunity to feed and stroke some of the ostriches as well as stand on the eggs (which can take weight of up to 120kg)! At the Cango Caves we all visited the first few chambers with impressive formations of stalagmites and stalactites. The majority of the group continued on for the Adventure Tour. This involved a small trek deep into the bowels of the caves culminating with a looped tour where members of the group were required to climb and squeeze through small gaps. It was challenging but everyone had a blast! Back in the main chamber the group took advantage of the spectacular acoustic and performed for the other visitors. We returned to George for a delicious dinner at an ocean restaurant where we looked out at the stormy Indian Ocean. The perfect end to another adventure-filled day!

My final day with the grioup included the journey by coach from George to Cape Town. Before we left George, we stopped at the beach for a quick look at sea. A few people got caught out by the waves so there were some very wet feet for our journey!

I arrived in Cape Town with enough time for a brief glimpse of Table Mountain and the group's short rehearsal at the Hugo Lambrechts Auditorium (where they were to perform another joint concert that evening). I bade an emotional farewell and departed for the airport.

I thoroughly enjoyed being in South Africa, the cultural experience was diverse. The country has so much to offer and I probably only experienced a small percentage of that on my whistle-stop trip! I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit this wonderful country, made all the better for the enthusiasm and knowledge of our representative Pieter, and it was a double bonus to be there with such a delightful and talented group.

The Choir of Jesus College Cambridge is currently on tour in South Africa! If you are interested in learning more about a concert tour to South Africa get in touch here

Published: 1 July 2018

MMA Conference, Eton College

As Tim Johnson, Director of Music at Eton College, said in his opening address, it was thoughtful of the Royal Family to organise Harry and Meghan’s wedding so that it coincided with the MMA Conference. The trade fair venue, Eton College’s magnificent School Hall, would have been splendid enough in its own right, but coupled with the carnival atmosphere in Windsor on May 19, the whole weekend created a very special atmosphere. Inspiring keynote speeches from Tony Little and Will Gompertz, choral evensong sung by delegates in Eton College Chapel, and the opportunity to view the magnificent Eton Choirbook in the College library, added to the unique attraction of the event. ACFEA was proud to sponsor the final dinner in the elegant surroundings of Dorney Lake Boathouse, and the evening was rounded off with a spectacular musical fireworks display.

Published: 4 June 2018

Learning outside the classroom changes lives

Here at ACFEA, our mission statement is simple: “to create unique opportunities for memorable and life changing experiences”. We are passionate about school trips and the benefits they can offer to the whole school community. Whilst it’s possible to receive a general musical education in the classroom, there is no substitute for actual performing experiences in the wider world, in a variety of different venues and to new audiences. Our bespoke concert tours can bring about unforgettable positive experiences and wonderful opportunities to learn.  They aid not only musical development, but can contribute to learning in a wide range of areas such as history, the wider arts, language and culture.
The Director of Allegro Con Brio wrote to us after their tour to Sweden in June 2017: With the completion of our fourth international trip with ACFEA, the Allegro staff is once again blown away by the thoughtful care and creativity in planning and executing our tour. The two exchange choir opportunities were life changing, and the relationships built between young singers were meaningful and heartfelt.”

Pupils who don’t normally shine in the classroom have been known to excel on a residential concert tour.  In terms of personal development, students are given opportunities to grow in resilience, self-confidence and self-esteem. Touring as a school community can add a new dimension in terms of how students relate with each other, bringing out a range of interpersonal skills including leadership, team work, trust and respect.  This can all help to improve performance and relationships back at school.

Phillip Scott, conductor of Hampshire County Youth Wind Ensemble, described their tour to Germany which ACFEA operated in July 2017: “I'm struggling to think of any tour I've been involved in which has offered such a combination of unforgettable venues, warm welcomes from venue hosts and… mind-boggling numbers attending.  None of my students will ever forget their six days in Germany - for at least one, it was his first trip abroad - and I think that the memories of the concerts at the Thomaskirche and Brandenburg Cathedral will become burnished over the years as very special events in their youth.”

In February 2018, ACFEA was proud to be awarded the Learning Outside the Classroom Quality Badge for the 8th year running, as part of being an Assured Member of the School Travel Forum.  The Council for Learning Outside the Classroom advocates that every young person should experience the world beyond the classroom as an essential part of learning and personal development, whatever their age, ability or circumstances.  The purpose of the Quality Badge is to help schools identify good quality and safe provision, and to reduce red tape for schools when planning educational visits, as it combines learning and safety into one easily recognisable accreditation. As a Quality Badge holder, schools have the assurance that ACFEA delivers:

  • Strict risk management processes across all areas of the business
  • Robust safeguarding and child protection procedures
  • Clear and accurate information given well in advance on services, amenities and costs
  • Learning objectives of the activities on offer, and the flexibility to tailor activities according to groups’ needs
  • Guidance and information on preparing pupils for the visit to maximise learning opportunities
  • A culture of listening to schools’ feedback and working to meet their requirements

ACFEA organises concert tours for schools and colleges across the world, and the feedback which we received from the Director of American choir, Washington & Jefferson College Singers, to Prague, Vienna and Salzburg last year gives confidence to other educational organisations considering planning a concert tour: “Thank you so much to everyone who made our tour such a special experience. This was my first time taking a choir abroad, and I honestly don't know why I waited so long. I plan to take my community choir to Italy in the summer of 2018 and I will absolutely, positively use ACFEA. Every detail was handled so professionally. From the planning phase to check in at the airport and all during the tour, our needs were the top priority of ACFEA. It was an extraordinary experience. Many, many thanks for all you did for us.”

Published: 21 May 2018

Travelling Tips

Here at ACFEA we are all aware of the less-glamorous sides to travel: jet lag and the dreaded packing!  Eleanor Etherington, one of our experienced tour managers, has travelled more than most and here shares her top tips for beating jet lag and minimising your packing stress

Beating Jet Lag

  • Make sure you're well stocked up with healthy snacks (nuts and cereal bars are good) and plenty of water
  • Keep snacking and drinking throughout the journey! It keeps energy up and can help curb travel sickness, essential if you're spending many hours travelling  and are  experiencing a whole new country and culture for the first time.
  • Try and adapt to the new clock as fast as possible - don't be tempted to stay up until 3am just because you feel ok, as it'll take way longer to get comfortable with your new time zone.
  • Changing to destination time on your watch before you take off!
  • Take a big wrap or scarf for wrapping around yourself in a plane or on a coach. This keeps you warm and snug and keeps light and sound out, all helping you rest during long travel schedules. 

Minimising Packing Stress

  • Try to limit your clothes packing to one outfit per day, plus one 'posh frock', plus your performing gear.
  • Packing 17 tops for a week long trip will likely have you lugging a load of clean stuff all round your itinerary and then home again! (We've all been there!!)
  • You get through less clothing than you may think and worst comes to worst, you can use the hotel’s laundry service while on tour
  • Keep liquids to a minimum, use travel bottles (up to 100ml) where possible instead of bringing full size toiletries, and double up if you can (for example 2 in 1 shampoo conditioner, and moisturiser with a decent SPF).
  • I never travel without a scarf (see above!)
  • I always pack in a standard carry-on size suitcase, whether or not I'm checking it in, to remind myself I don't need to take the kitchen sink!
Published: 23 March 2018

Trailblazing Ukraine

Boldly going where no ACFEA group has gone before this year the Belfast Philharmonic Chorus undertook a 9 day tour of Poland and Ukraine performing the Mozart C Minor mass and Poulenc’s Stabat Mater accompanied by the Lviv Virtuosos Academic Chamber Orchestra and conducted by Bartosz Żurakowski.

First stop on the tour was Opole, a city around 200km west of Krakow on the river Oder. Over 500 people flocked to Opole Cathedral to hear the concert and they weren’t disappointed!

After a sightseeing trip to nearby Wroclaw, it was time for the group to leave Opole to head east towards Krakow. Not before taking a slight detour 300 meters underground to visit the fascinating salt mines of Wieliczka, complete with an ‘underground cathedral’ where the choir squeezed in a sneaky pop-up performance.

The tour’s second concert took place in the magnificent Basilica of Katowice, the largest Basilica in Poland. The choir and orchestra were personally invited to perform here by the Bishop of the Silesian region and as a special honour, Bartosz invited the former director of the Lviv Opera, Maestro Miron Yusipovich to conduct this concert for the Bishop. Alongside the Bishop, another impressive audience welcomed the ensemble there in Katowice, with very few seats remaining.

After some time at leisure to explore the old town of Krakow with its impressive medieval square it was time for the group to head even further east into Ukraine. Phones, tablets and kindles all charged the group were ready to hit the border and before long found themselves in the beautiful western Ukrainian city of Lviv. First order of the day was a guided tour by some enthusiastic local guides, who were thrilled to have a group from Northern Ireland visit their city. The eagle eyed members of the choir manage to spot posters advertising their concert, some Cyrillic decoding required on this occasion!

The group’s final concert was the grand finale and closing concert of the Music in Old Lviv festival. Held in the Lviv Philharmonic Hall, home to the choir’s tour partners, the Lviv Virtuosos Academic Chamber Orchestra, the ensemble performed to an almost full Philharmonic Hall. The local media were also there to get in on the action, you can see the clip here.

Published: 16 February 2018

ACFEA Tour Consultants UK Summit in Derbyshire

With a busy touring summer behind us, November saw the team from ACFEA Tour consultants travel up to Derbyshire for our annual review meeting. As Tour Manager Elizabeth Assmann says, “it was the second time the team had met at the cosy East Lodge Hotel in Rowsley so we knew we were in for a treat! Spending this time together, away from our regular office base, is really valuable because it’s an opportunity to meet together to review the past touring season and also an opportunity to re-connect as a team and strengthen our working relationships.

During the morning and afternoon we met together in the hotel’s private meeting room to note the highs and lows of our groups’ experiences in each touring destination. Our discussions focussed on how to improve the experience of each group which chooses to tour with us and the way we work to deliver the high quality tours ACFEA is known for.

On our third and final day, with all our meetings successfully concluded, it was time to explore a bit of the beautiful county of Derbyshire! After breakfast we drove into the Peak District National Park and enjoyed a short walk with breath-taking views. We then drove on to visit the picturesque village of Eyam. The village is noted for an outbreak of bubonic plague which occurred there in 1665, in which the villagers chose to isolate themselves rather than let the infection spread. We visited the church and the local arts & craft centre before reluctantly leaving the beautiful county of Derbyshire behind and heading back to London.” 

Published: 31 January 2018

A Diary of Suffolk Youth Orchestra's Tour to Poland, July 2017

by members Sasha Campbell, Anton Avis, Isaac Barrow & Sophie Reaville

Wednesday 26th July to 27th July – Travel to Krakow
(Sophie): On the 26th July we started our 28 hour trek to Krakow. Stopping off at service stations throughout the night, we were all very tired when we arrived. 
(Anton): We travelled through Germany by night and entered Poland at about 6am local time. We arrived at 1pm and caught sight of our eminent hotel, Hotel Chopin. We then headed into the Old Town of Krakow.
(Sasha): While meandering through the Rynek Market (which did of course work wonders for my FitBit step-count) I observed and enjoyed the proud Polish culture. The whole square pulsed with energy, like trilling violins. The townsfolk bumbled enthusiastically in all directions, only ever halting in their tracks to greet one another loudly or to allow the stunning horse-drawn carts to travel onwards. The volume and zealousness of the local shopkeepers was so startling that their intensity verged on scary!
(Sophie): We were very taken aback when a Polish street seller adorned our friend Sasha with traditional Polish clothing only to find that she had no Zlotys to pay him with, but he still accepted plenty of Euros. We then settled into our hotel rooms.
(Anton): For dinner we ate in the hotel. The starter was a salad, the main was chicken and potatoes and the dessert was a cherry torte. The meal was divine. Afterwards, Mr Shaw delivered a series of announcements and we went to bed.

Friday 28th July – Transfer by coach to Dobczyce, Concert in the Municipal Cultural and Sport Centre
(Isaac): Today was the day of our first concert. We set off for Dobczyce, seeing the majestic views of the rolling Polish landscape – there are a few similarities to our own Suffolk countryside with plenty of livestock, smallholdings and quaint little cottages – but far fewer hills!
(Anton): We set up and then listened to a welcome talk. We rehearsed for the first time in a few days and it went well. 
(Isaac): It transpired that we would be the first symphony orchestra to perform in the venue. In the early evening, before the concert, we all went out to Folwark Zalesie, a small restaurant ensconced in the hills, overlooking the town.
(Anton): During the meal, a fellow bassist got the words for “thank you” and “in Polish” mixed up so he shouted, “in Polish!” at a waitress while winking and smiling. Her eye roll was tremendous. Soon after, we changed into our concert clothes and delivered our first concert.
(Isaac): The concert itself went smoother than expected – the celebratory atmosphere was heightened as the mayor of the town presented Mr Shaw with a framed plaque, commemorating the performance.

Saturday 29th July – Transfer by coach to Penderecki European Centre for Music
(Sophie): The next day we took a two-hour drive to the Penderecki European Centre for music. The building was of a very interesting architecture but the purpose-built wooden interior of the concert hall provided a wonderful acoustic similar to that of Snape Maltings.
(Isaac): It was one of the more memorable concerts I have been a part of. We had a productive rehearsal, followed by a much appreciated dinner in the PECM dining hall. The concert itself showcased SYO at our best, which we chalked up to the relaxed atmosphere.

Sunday 30th July – Transfer by coach to Auschwitz, return by coach to St Catherine’s Church, Krakow

(Sasha): Auschwitz. It’s hard for me to describe how I felt. I was overwhelmed with horror. Barbed wire encased the camp. I stood in silence and trepidation before the infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign, before forcing myself through the gate, though not yet really understanding the scale of the monstrosity that would change my perception of mankind’s capabilities and redefine the word ‘suffering’.
Once inside the camp we saw several different buildings, which held harrowing remnants to the evil that had taken place. Gaping chambers filled with personal belongings, such as ceramics, clothes and shoes, served to highlight the magnitude of the number of people held captive and the enormity of the suffering they experienced. We passed through a huge room filled entirely with human hair. Dark hair. Fair hair. Straight hair. Curly hair. Matted clumps of hair. Individual plaits of hair. All tangled together to form a single, warped, and contorted body. An image almost identical to the agonizing photos we saw of the camp’s prisoners: of starving women, emaciated and skeletal; of slaving men, quivering spasmodically beneath burdensome loads; and of tortured children, whose hollow faces were branded with identical marks of anguish and torment. Standing on the very same ground where so much pain and suffering occurred was utterly traumatizing. Having witnessed only a tiny slice of the evidence of the evils carried out at Auschwitz it’s almost impossible to understand how so many people remained positive, hopeful and determined to make the most of the lives they had left in the face of such monstrosity. I couldn’t help but compare the way that the tormented camp musicians were forced to play for the entertainment of the guards and for their own survival in such distressing, desperate and dire circumstances, to the unrestrained joy I felt, when playing with the SYO, and receiving such glorious receptions. 
(Isaac): Today would prove a moving day for many in the group, myself included. After a two-hour coach journey we arrived at the gates of Auschwitz and were taken around the site. Much of it had been repurposed into housing the exhibits and displays, but the site itself still stands, including the first gas chamber, later used as a bomb shelter at the end of the war. For me, I didn't 'want' to take the visit but felt compelled to learn more about the atrocities committed, as some of my own ancestors had their lives taken at the camp.
(Sophie): A deeply sad but interesting visit. The visit gave us a feeling that is extremely difficult todescribe, but one of absolute horror and realisation to the magnitude of the holocaust, which never really hits home until you visit one of the camps.
(Anton): I could write loads and loads about Auschwitz, but I shall say only this: We Must Never Forget.
(Isaac): The atmosphere was very much subdued as we arrived at our next concert venue,St. Catherine's Church, Krakow where we were told that we were one of the largest ensembles to perform there.
(Sophie): The church was stunningly beautiful and provided a wonderful resonant acoustic which flattered our Panufnik piece of music called "Procession for Peace" giving it all the harmonic resonance and grandeur to make it as impressive as possible.
(Isaac): The concert went even better than the previous evening, and by the end, everyone - performers and audience alike -were on their feet.
(Anton): When finished, we had dinner at a restaurant. It was onion soup, pork and potatoes finished with Neapolitan ice cream. What a day.

Monday 31st July - Transfer by coach to Zakopane, concert in Holy Cross Church
(Sophie): We spent the day in Zakopane, a sweet little town featuring a huge and very well known ski resort with some of the highest ski slopes in Europe. It is situated in the mountains near the Slovak border and is known as "the winter capital of Poland". The buildings in Zakopane were made of interlocking wooden beams using no nails. These beautiful "Hansel and Gretel-like chalets provided a lovely fairytale feel to the place and it is understandable that there are so many tourists there. Zakopane was also home to a great pizza place where most of the orchestra had their lunch!
(Isaac): We arrived at the Holy Cross Church, our last concert venue, where we rehearsed and swiftly left in time for their evening Mass and in time for our evening meal. We all ate very carefully, particularly when confronted with a tomato and basil soup, so as to save our white shirts from blemishes. Pushed for time, we made it back to the venue with just thirty minutes to get on stage!
(Anton): The performance was astounding. Each piece was enthusiastically applauded by the audience, and at the end there was a standing ovation.

Extract taken from the diary as published in ‘Get Classical’, editor Fiona Wilson. Photo taken by Monika Pazera.

Published: 1 September 2017

Michael Portillo attends London Oratory concert in Seville, Spain

Michael Portillo attends London Oratory concert in Seville and Choir releases rew CD on Sony Classics label
The London Oratory School’s Schola Cantorum had an immensely successful tour to Granada and Seville during their February 2017 half term, singing to full houses. At one of their four concerts,  at Iglesia de la Anunciacion, Universidad de Sevilla, there were queues stretching back two blocks and with 350 people inside there was standing room only.  A rather special guest, Michael Portillo attended and the Music Director,  Charles Cole, was delighted to meet him after the concert. 

The choir posted 3 minute videos each day of their tour on Facebook. 

The Choir’s new CD “Sacred Treasures of England” was released in February 2017 on Aim Higher Recordings in conjunction with Sony Classics and sold extremely well at each concert venue. Have a listen here. 

Published: 8 March 2017

Expanding Worlds Through Exchanges

Few things get closer to the heart of what an international concert tour can teach than performing with a local group.
Joint concerts can be tricky to co-ordinate, given that typical concert seasons and touring times mean host groups aren’t always available. But when they’re possible, they are such a beautiful, clear example of how much we have in common with our brothers and sisters around the globe.

The West Village Chorale from New York City had one such experience while traveling through Greece last summer. As the tour unfolded, the members’ Facebook posts were full of snapshots of the singers exploring ancient archaeological sites in the radiant sunlight, tales of the choir warming up in some of the country’s finest Neo-classical venues, and, as you would hope, a copious amount of photos of them hanging out on the beach under that famously deep blue sky. But, by the night of their final concert on the island of Tinos, a joint concert with Ta Paidia tis Horodias, the local youth choir, the status updates were filled with even deeper emotion. Former Artistic Director Michael Conley posted:

The best moments of the tour happened last night when we shared our final concert with a local children's choir. During the warm-up they sang an American spiritual, which wasn't on their program, just for us. It was so lovely! And during the concert they sang an Eastern Orthodox hymn, an Ave Maria, a Greek folk song, and ended with Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" in Greek! It was so moving and so heartfelt, and such a perfect expression of what we need a lot more of in the world: joyfully crossing borders and tearing down walls. May the children show us the way!

The touching concert experience continued to resonate after the Chorale went home and inspired them to pool donations for the youth choir. After only a few short weeks, they raised $1,500. Of the gift, Georgia Bakogianni, Ta Paidia tis Horodias’s director, said, “It is like a gift coming from heaven and this is proof that music can bring people together and make us better!”

The Greek choir has always wanted to perform beyond Tinos, and now the group is able to do just that, at a festival of school choirs in the spring of 2017. “Thanks to you, we will be able to climb up a level and have new choral experiences,” Georgia said. As WVC singer Marianna Cayten said, “I’m so happy we can do a bit to expand their world. They certainly did for us.”

Published: 6 January 2017

Chinese Children Chanting in the UK

IFC Children's Choir at Southwark Cathedral, Photo by Andre Havard

In July, the International Festival Chorus Children’s Choir saw a  group of 8 to 14 year old excited kids, their staff and supporters touch down in London from Beijing to embark on a tour of England and Scotland.  

Their aim was to get a taste of the English choral tradition, both educationally and musically and after a long haul flight, were thrown in at the deep end with a touching performance at Southwark Cathedral on their first full day. 

Under the Cathedral’s imposing perpendicular arches  they sang to an enthusiastic audience, with a repertoire of Western and Chinese songs.   After a panoramic tour of London and an excursion to Harry Potter World, the group attended a workshop at St John’s College, Cambridge with its  Director of Music, Andrew Nethsingha, who explained to the group the Cambridge College singing tradition and he took them through a couple of pre prepared pieces.   Onwards to Telford, the group joined forces for an inspiring workshop day of music making with the National Children’s Choir of Great Britain at Shrewsbury School before heading up via the Lake District to Glasgow.  They ended their tour with a trip to Edinburgh, a final rewarding performance at the ISME Conference at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and prizes handed out at a meal at the Corinthian Club in Glasgow.  

Published: 7 October 2016

Queens' College Cambridge tour to France 2016

ACFEA Tour Consultants  were delighted to facilitate the  Queens' College Cambridge concert tour to France in July 2016. We are always pleased to share memories and photographs of past concerts on our website and so we are thrilled that we can share the Queens' College tour report. Their tour of Angers, Nantes, Tours and Paris is documented in this excerpt from their own official report as written by members of the Choir!

Queens College Cambridge

DAY 1 – Friday – Anna Thomas

At 12pm prompt we arrived at St Pancras, where we were met by our refreshingly charismatic tour guide, Clare. Her flawless organisation skills were evident immediately as we swiftly boarded the Eurostar. An hour’s change in Lille station gave us time to visit our first Irish pub of the tour. It took the best part of 7 hours to reach our destination in Angers at 10pm, but the extensive journey had us pumped up and ready for the evening ahead.

We finished the evening with a relaxing walk towards Angers Cathedral. This night-time view was a perfect introduction to the sequence of magnificent French churches that we would see during the tour. On returning to our hotel, we slept peacefully in our beds with the comforting knowledge that this was just the beginning of a magical, action-packed and intensely musically rewarding week away!

DAY 2 – Saturday – Michaela Higham
As day 1 was a notably long day of travelling, we were excited to be off so very bright and early on Saturday morning starting the tour properly with a day trip out to Nantes. After dumping folders and cassocks (never again to smell quite so fresh) in Nantes Cathedral, and being suitably awed by the size of this venue, we parted ways with everyone off to enjoy different parts of the city before the afternoon rehearsal. Several of us headed down to the Château des ducs de Bretagne, admiring the city from the walls. It was from these walls that we spotted a suitably large fountain, and so we did the only acceptable thing and left the castle walls to paddle in it instead (QCCC’s reoccurring attraction to being in medium sized bodies of water is a well-documented but ultimately unexplainable phenomenon.)

ACFEA pre-concert publicityHaving found some flyers for tonight’s concert in the local tourist office (and been incredibly excited that our faces had been flyered around the city in preparation for our arrival), we decided to take a bunch and hand them out as we walked, with surprising success in spite of our relatively poor collective command of French, native French speakers notwithstanding. Heading over the river, many of us made it to a particularly unusual tourist attraction – “Les Machines de l’île” – a museum devoted to large mechanical creations, including a huge moving elephant and spider, the former of which sprayed us with water from its trunk, perhaps signalling that we really ought to get back in time for our first rehearsal of tour, before the evening’s performance.

Nantes Cathedral proved to be a hard performance venue, but ultimately a rewarding and very beautiful one. Whilst we found it hard to fill the huge space on the first concert of the tour (especially as we had currently lost a quarter of our tenor section to a wedding), it was really encouraging to see the cathedral packed and to pull off a concert so well when we hadn’t sung together in a month! We arrived back late but finally managed to get some rest before Sunday and its two concerts.

DAY 3 – Sunday – Edward Reeve

This day was the only one of the tour fully spent in Angers, whose connection with the Anjou dynasty had prompted our journey to this part of France in the first place. This day was also my twenty-first birthday, and slightly unusually in the history of my birthdays, began with a Catholic mass in a large French church. We arrived at St Joseph in time for a quick briefing on the service structure, which was all the more delightful given how extravagantly the actual service varied from all written plans. The choir entered to the sounds of a very fine Cavaillé-Coll organ, and were led to seats just behind the altar, where they engaged in the congregational mass, a psalm and hymn in French, extracts from the Byrd Four Part Mass and anthems by Purcell and Duruflé - what the service lacked in terms of recognisable cues and organisation was more than made up for by the beautiful acoustic and enraptured congregation.

Mass finished with a walk back to the Cathedral, where it was my duty to lay a bouquet of flowers (as close as we could find to green and silver) on the memorial to Margaret of Anjou. The choir sang Pearsall’s “Lay a Garland” to mark this moving tribute to our foundress.

Our third venue of the day was the best acoustic of the tour: St Serge. On asking about the main West End Organ, Jack and I were informed “non – c’est abominable!” A recent heatwave had rendered its tuning unforgivable, so Jack and I played the small choir organ. The choir performed very strongly, and the audience was large and appreciative at the concert. Our French contact Séverine (From ACFEA Tour Consultants)  had prepared a special treat for Jack and me, and that evening led us to the darkened cathedral to try the monstrous and magnificent organ there, guided by the Titulaire. The cathedral was soon reverberating with Vierne, Bach and Alain. My puzzlement at being walked home by a different route gave way to astonishment and delight when Severine and Jack ducked into a creperie and I was knocked back by the loudest rendition of Happy Birthday I have ever heard. We all had a lovely dinner, followed by drinks outside in one of Angers' main squares.

Edward Reeve

DAY 4 – Monday – Helen Barker

On Monday, we got to be tourists for a large part of the day: we started off the day with a visit to Fontevraud Abbey. It was so pretty, in a style that looked very typical of northern France, and we gave a spontaneous performance of “Beati Quorum Via” in the grounds, which (to us at least...) was very atmospheric! We recorded this and you can hear it here:


Afterwards, we went to the Château de Villandry and gave an open-air concert – we were also blessed with good weather, so the castle looked beautiful! (And our crowds didn't get soaked!) We then had time to explore the grounds, and take some (fabulous) photos. Following on from that, we travelled to Tours, where we performed in a beautiful church - as the composer Poulenc had come from that area, they were particularly appreciative of us including his work in our programme. This was one of the busier days of the programme, but it was certainly a rewarding one!

DAY 5 – Tuesday – Andrei Smid

After a lovely trip along the Loire valley the day before, everybody was hoping for a lazy morning. As one could tell from our sleep-deprived zombie faces at breakfast that was not the case. But hey, looking on the bright side, we were going to Paris!!!!  Arrived at the station, Clare (ACFEA's Tour Manager) diligently distributed our train tickets, and soon we boarded the train bound for Paris. In between singing along to smash hits from Disney’s “Frozen” (who knew basses could sing like a girl), and composing fugues to the SNCF jingle (to be featured as voluntaries next year) time passed fairly quickly and lo and behold, nous arrivons à Paris.

“Vive Queens’, Vive L’Anjou” at Fontevraud Abbey

Later that day, we had our first Paris concert in the beautiful church of Saint-Louis-en-l'Île. To me, this was my favourite concert of the tour. Our singing was fantastic, the sound extraordinary, and the audience warm and lovely. Jack and Edward brought the house down with spectacular renditions of Bach’s St Anne Prelude and Fugue, and Passacaglia in C minor and we enchanted the audience by singing 3 pieces while surrounding them in their seats. Though initially reluctant (it was quite difficult to sing while not hearing everybody else), we followed Ralph’s indications and what a marvel it was! Being so far away from each other made it feel as if I were singing a solo and so I did (I’m a tenor, I can’t help myself!) I remember the surprised look on the faces of the audience members blessed to be sitting right in front of me and hear my fabulous tenor lines. Either that or they were horrified, couldn’t say for sure (let’s be optimistic and assume the former).

DAY 6 – Wednesday – Hannah Bowstead

This for me was the busiest day of the tour. It was also one of the busiest days of my life, so to avoid a gargantuan account that Tolstoy would be proud of, I will condense the day into a list, because this is apparently the done thing nowadays.

Highlights of Day 6 include (but are by no means limited to):

  • Gleefully waltzing past the queues outside Notre Dame to be taken in the secret side door
  • The smell of the cassocks as we opened the suitcases for their final appearance of tour (come to think of it this might not have been a highlight)
  •  Walking out into the cathedral to sing our final concert (for those who, like myself, have not visited Notre Dame before, I would thoroughly recommend joining a half-decent choir so that your first impressions of the cathedral will be as you process in to sing. Greatly preferable to being a tourist)
  •  Singing the most beautiful repertoire in the most beautiful space, even though I could only really hear one other member of the choir, who shall remain nameless
  • Closing with Parry’s “Lord, Let Me Know Mine End”, which was to be the last thing that many members sang with the choir, and then walking off to complete silence (either a poignant and atmospheric moment, or a very bad audience reception)
  • Taking off my cassock, happy in the knowledge that it would be cleaned before I don it again in October
  •  Climbing up the 704 steps to the second floor of the Eiffel Tower, knowing that I’d earned my dinner
  •  Wondering how other members of the choir could have thought that the Mona Lisa was a better sight than the view from the very top of the Eiffel Tower
  •  Finding the most delightfully tacky souvenir shop, with such delights as a neon green and diamante Eiffel Tower, and a model of the Arc de Triomphe labelled the “Arc de Tromphe”
  • Trying to navigate the roundabout around the “Arc de Tromphe” itself
  •  A lovely (subsidised!) choir dinner in a tiny, tiny room which wasn’t quite as hot as Sunday’s creperie
  • Chocolate crepes without the chocolate and, in some cases, without the crepe
  •  Edward’s moving tribute to the tour (“Of the two tours I have been on with this choir,” he said, “this one is definitely in the top five.”)
  • Huge and well-deserved rounds of applause for the leavers of the choir
  • Paddling in the artificial lake/fountain in the middle of La Defense, gazing towards the night-time Paris skyline of the lit up Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower, singing “Goodnight Sweetheart” with the most wonderful group of people #wherethemagichappens

Realising that it was 2:30am and I’d been up for 18 hours – and not quite believing that the Notre Dame concert had been on that same day
The memories of the day will surely remain with me for a very long time.
As will the pain in my feet.

Exploring La Défense, Paris by night

DAY 7 – Thursday – Will Ackernley

As the final day dawned, a motley crew dripped into breakfast like a series of slow tears. Yet for others a parting Hotel Ibis breakfast had little hope. In all it would seem the choir pace of life had taken to Clare's words of Parisian wisdom: “life's too short, we'll get the next train.” Soon we would fraction off into those valuable friendship groups we had earlier been instructed to create.

The morning hours would see QCCC representatives scattered across the capital indulging in past times encompassing musée visitations and/or sleep. As our hours were numbered, the troops began to collect their luggage and head for Gare de Nord, with the realisation setting in that no input from our supreme leader had yet occurred, though we strode on triumphantly to the ticket gate. One final outing for Clare – sweet relief or saddening reality? As we watched the lights of Paris fade into the distance, a soft shadow cast over us and our call of “Lord, let me know mine end” was seemingly coming to fruition. The Quexit of a week before touched back into a wet London – and whilst the question of whether the grass is greener on the other side remained unanswered, we were all happy to be safe in the knowledge of the happiness implanted by sunflowers to certain key members of society.

And so it goes, the final goodbye for some. Heavy losses have now been sustained as the realisation dawns that some of our members may never be in our company again. The biggest loss to each of us will be of individual choice, but certainly QCCC seems to be losing much of its substance, with the loss of three C's: choral scholars, choral exhibitioners and Clares.

As the tour came to its end and we went our separate ways, the overriding feeling to the tour was that we wouldn’t have spent the week any other way!

Published: 18 August 2016

NYC Nightingales sighted in Spain

Circulo de Amistad Liceo Artistico y Literario

April 2016 saw ACFEA Tour Consultants bring New York's Nightingale-Bamford School Chamber Chorus to Spain for a concert tour which included the cities of Seville, Cordoba and Granada. 

The tour saw twenty members of the choir participate in Mass followed by a concert in the Iglesia del Santo Angel, a 17th century Baroque Church in the centre of Seville. From here they moved on to Cordoba and were able to perform in Circulo de Amistad Liceo Artistico y Literario, a beautiful building which is registered as one of Spain's cultural and historical monuments. Their final concert was in the Church of our Lady of Sorrows in Granada and it was here where each member of the choir was presented with a souvenir gift from the parish priest and in turn the choir reciprocated with a gift and a donation to the church. 

Church of our Lady of Sorrows

The tour also included plenty of sightseeing and a tour to the Alhambra Palace, as well as a flamenco lesson which added a taste of authentic Spanish culture! 

Flamenco lessons

Published: 9 May 2016

'Small' vs 'large' tour operators

Lincolnshire Youth Symphony

Nigel Morley, pianist and conductor of the Lincolnshire Youth Symphony (seen above and below), started his own tour company Legato Tours in the early 1990s. He sold and operated by himself from his home but after a few years encountered difficulties when trying to expand. As a consequence he joined ACFEA in 2008. Here are his observations of “small vs large” tour operations.

Amateur concert tours are sold and promoted by a wide range of companies, all claiming to offer the same services. Clever marketing and a wizzy website can make a small company appear to be much larger than it really is. However, if we look a little closer all may not be as it seems. How can I say this with certainty? As a previous “small company” owner myself before joining ACFEA, I have perhaps a unique insight into both sides of the fence.

Lincolnshire Youth Symphony

I first entered the amateur touring business in the early 1990s, initially organising tours for my own groups and subsequently for friends and then friends of friends. At the beginning I offered a very limited range of destinations, Poland being my first, and one that over the years was repeatedly requested. Obviously I needed more strings to my bow and I tried to add a new destination every year, to meet my customers’ demands. The problem of all small tour companies - I was no exception - is that day to day operations get in the way of growth, research and planning. There are still companies around who will sell a tour when they do not have the resources in place to run it. “Give me your money and I’ll fix it!” is hardly a recipe for consistency.

Health and Safety is now a major concern for most clients. In my early days it was nowhere near as time and resource consuming as now - it is difficult to see how a small company could cope with the mountains of documentation currently required. Having moved to ACFEA in 2008 with its significantly larger operation, the difference is clear.

Health and Safety is a top priority with specialist training and systems in place; a great reassurance for teachers, parents, bursars and Trustees. ACFEA`s tour operations are genuinely worldwide. They do not base a proposal on vague or tenuous links; every destination offered has been thoroughly researched with the aid of local representation. There is no way that the “cottage industry” model can offer this. Some clients are naturally attracted by the idea that such operators will offer really personal service and many think that smaller will mean cheaper because of lower overheads. Both of these assumptions are quite wrong; smaller operators do not have the breadth of contacts, experience and buying power and their profit margins are the same. Less choice, similar costs, less supervision. The fact that touring tends to be highly seasonal means that great strains are put on small operations at peak times.

I have never once regretted the move to ACFEA – I can now negotiate from a position of genuine confidence in the results.

Published: 29 February 2016