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!
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.)
Having 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.
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.
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):
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.
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!