Saturday, 21 May 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Patrick Baker

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Highlights of Italy by Pip Dracakis

The penultimate leg of our month-long tour was quite possibly the most special and memorable part of our trip. Our 5 days in Italy were well spent soaking up (and contributing to) the unbeatable Mediterranean culture, delicious food and warm climate. We were given the wonderful opportunity to travel by coach to several picturesque villages outside Rome (Ninfa, Norma, Cave and Palestrina), where we were warmly greeted by enthusiastic locals and acquaintances of Bella Woods. The generous hospitality shown to us over the course of those 5 days warmed the cockles of my heart.

Our first performance on Roman soil was given at the Baldini Hall, Piazza Campitelli. I was struck by the unapologetic, rapturous applause from the audience, who despite being few in number (“A third of the audience are in the front row!” – Warren), filled the room with multiple exclamations of “Brava!” at the conclusion of the concert.

[Poster for our concert at Baldini Hall]

On our third day in Rome, The Choir of St James’ gave a concert at the beautifully ornate, Baroque Church of Saint Ignatius. Here, we presented a slightly different program interweaving movements of Palestrina’s Missa Ut re mi fa sol into a mix of other works including Pater Noster by our own talented Owen Elsley and Rutter’s Hymn to the Creator of Light (two crowd favourites). 

Singing Palestrina’s music was something the Choir liked to do a lot of in Italy, especially in the town of Palestrina! Sicut cervus became a bit of a signature piece and certainly a poignant encore at our concert in the town of Palestrina (where we were fortunate enough to be given a free guided tour of Palestrina’s house). We also enjoyed singing Sicut cervus with the Sistine Chapel Choir when we were invited to sit in on their rehearsal one afternoon in Rome. Some members of The Choir of St James’ even managed to tick “singing at St Peter’s” off the old bucket list with a secret rendition of Sicut cervus at 8:30am on our final day in Rome.
Exhausted, sunburnt and well fed with our bellies full of pasta and Chianti, we all convened to the balcony of our beautiful villa in Cave on our last night in Italy. We all reflected on the many amazing musical and culturally rich experiences we had shared over delicious cheese, bread and more Chianti. 

[Saint Ignatius Church]

As I continue to reflect on this incredible trip, I feel increasingly grateful for the opportunity to have shared beautiful choral music with not only my incredibly talented and disciplined peers, but also with people who live on the other side of the world. Having heard each audience’s appreciation for The Choir of St James’ and the ways in which our performances touched them spiritually and emotionally affirms to me the significance of the Choir’s first European tour. This echoes the passion for singing in an ensemble shared by its members and it especially acknowledges Warren’s unwavering hard work, musicianship and leadership.

Pip Dracakis

Monday, 9 May 2016


Singing Palestrina's Sicut cervus in The Basilica Cattedrale di Sant'Agapito Martire, Palestrina

22 April 2016

Sunday, 8 May 2016

One extraordinary day in Italy - Philip Murray

After several weeks spent revelling in the big-city buzz of London, Paris and Vienna, a journey into the countryside on our second day in Italy provided a welcome change of scene. Thanks to some invaluable family connections and lots of groundwork on the part of Isabella Woods, we were to perform that evening in Norma, a hilltop town southeast of Rome, and as guests of the local choral society (the Coro Polifonico “SS Annunziata”) we had been invited to enjoy a day visiting some of the attractions of the local area. Within an hour’s drive from Rome, on a sunny spring morning, we found ourselves suddenly among picturesque villages, vineyards and olive groves.


The first stop was the Giardino di Ninfa, a famous landscape garden established in the early 20th century by descendants of the noble Caetani family over the ruins of the medieval village of Ninfa. Few of us knew what to expect, but its reputation as the most beautiful and romantic garden in the world proved to be no exaggeration – what a miraculous, ravishing dream of a garden it was. Maintained entirely by hand without the use of chemicals or pesticides, it is considered one of Italy’s finest natural monuments. To stroll among the rose bushes, the hanging wisteria and beds of yellow irises, under the oak trees and cypresses and among the oranges and pomegranates (which we were told are never picked but left as food for the native birds); to stand on the old stone bridge and gaze down into pure spring water so impossibly clear that it seemed almost like some optical illusion; to walk along the former moat, now a snowy carpet of arum lilies and a playground for fireflies; to touch the crumbling stone walls of ancient houses and churches covered with climbing roses, no longer living buildings but mere shapes amongst the profusion of nature, distant echoes of lives lived long ago and testament to the endless cycle of death and new life; to see this beautiful place, and above all to be treated to a private tour by Stella, the director’s wife, was an exceptional privilege.

After losing ourselves for a couple of hours in this new Eden, it was time for lunch. We were driven to the town of Norma itself, on the mountaintop overlooking Ninfa, where we were invited to relax in a beautiful courtyard in the Mediterranean sunshine while a superb three-course meal was generously provided by our hosts. As the day unfolded, it became increasingly clear how much effort had gone into organising a special day for us. After lunch we were taken to a local chocolate factory and museum, and were given a tour of the most eclectic collection imaginable of machines and objects related to the processing, manufacturing and eating of chocolate, rather dusty and faded but clearly the work of a collector with an obsessive passion and an eye for the bizarre. One shelf alone, of various antique pots, kettles and samovars used for the serving of drinking chocolate, was staggering in its variety. As we left, in another gesture of generosity we were each presented with a small gift of chocolate sauce.

By now the afternoon was drawing on, and there was some concern about finding time for a rehearsal before the concert that evening. But a further visit had been planned, to the hilltop town and fortress of neighbouring Sermoneta, which proved to be another astonishing treat. We were granted a private visit to the medieval castle at the centre of the town, also built by the Caetani family, and although having only a short while to look around, it was well worth it. This was a castle to satisfy the most fantastic imaginings of any child, with a moat, two drawbridges and a portcullis, turrets with narrow winding staircases, high crenelated battlements, a secret passageway within the walls, a courtyard with a well, large chambers and banqueting halls, and a spectacular view over the terracotta rooftops of the town and the entire surrounding region of Lazio. It was a fleeting visit but one I will not forget in a hurry.

We returned rather late to the church of Santissima Annunziata in Norma for a hasty rehearsal, but were thwarted by an unexpected service taking place in the church. Tired, thirsty and slightly frazzled after a long day, we freshened up as best we could in the church offices nearby, and were able to have few minutes’ warm-up in another church next door. There was a feeling of slight unease at not having a chance to try out the performance space, but it was too late to worry about it. Waiting in the piazza for the mass to finish, the late-afternoon sunlight became increasingly golden on the rooftops, and in the absence of traffic in this old part of town the only sounds were gentle ones: human voices echoing off the cobblestones, faint singing from the congregation at mass, the sonorous clang of an ancient bell somewhere nearby, the twitter of swallows roosting. The smells of an evening meal in preparation drifted down from an upper window. The beauty and peace of the place, and a magical feeling of being very far from home and from the cares and routines of daily life, cast a spell that swept away any anxiety.

When we at last entered the church, it was bustling with people. It was apparent by now that the concert would not be starting on time, but from the hum of expectation it clearly didn’t matter. We were ushered into the sacristy, where the windows looked over a rocky precipice and down to another stunning view of the fertile plains of Lazio far below, now hazy and golden in the evening light. Church staff and concert organisers busied themselves around us. An elderly but sprightly nun with a twinkle in her eye chatted to Warren in French, then took out her smartphone and befriended him on WhatsApp.

To begin the concert, the choir of Norma honoured us with a performance of their own, of a simple Italian piece, sung with a warmth and unity of spirit that were quite moving. Then it was our turn, and once again we had the joy of hearing our voices blend in yet another absolutely stunning acoustic. The lively and responsive crowd seemed to enjoy it too. Palestrina’s “Sicut cervus” went down particularly well. We were greeted with a generous ovation and were showered with more gifts, this time of local olive oils and tapenades. Already overwhelmed by such generosity, we were then treated to a sumptuous dinner at a local restaurant - four courses this time, with freely flowing wine - in the convivial company of our new Italian chorister friends. In return we sang for our supper, performing a few of our more popular items, which were also well received by another party celebrating a 40th birthday in the same part of the restaurant.

After dinner both choirs proceeded outside to the piazza for a photo shoot and farewell speeches. The effusions of emotion at how lives had been touched and spirits uplifted by our performance, and the enthusiastic promises of future visits and meetings, were quite overwhelming. For any musician, simply to know that one has moved or given pleasure to an audience is reward enough; to be greeted in return with generosity and hospitality on such a scale was truly humbling.

Philip Murray


Monday, 2 May 2016

Wien - Liza Lilli

Kirche am Steinhof

The time in Wien was, for me, deeply enriching. Once again we sang in beautiful buildings: in the Kirche am Steinhof and the Stephansdom. Each church had its own particular challenge from the point of view of the acoustics. Clearly Otto Wagner hadn't received or acted upon any advice from acoustical engineers in his stunning Jugendstil masterpiece of the St Leopold Church in the 'Stone Court', and making music in a space with a 7 second echo certainly requires careful attention to phrasing in order that the result is more than a bath of sound. Marko assured us that the concert had come across well and so we will choose to believe him!

The experience of singing in the Stephansdom, on the other hand, was one where a little choir could easily feel consumed by the cavernous space. For me the rehearsal, in which I sang consciously contemplating the fact that Haydn had sung there before me, was one of the many highlights of the tour. As can be the nature of performance, parts of the service were disappointing, but that is insignificant... Our intention had been positive and our contribution to the service was appreciated. 

Schubert's glasses
In my free time I raced from one place of 'musical interest' to another: 1) the Schoenberg centre, 2) the house in which Haydn lived, which also contained a room dedicated to Brahms, 3) the house in which Schubert died, 4) the house in which Beethoven wrote is famous Heiligenstädter Testament, a letter written to his brothers in which he laments his increasing deafness. 
Reading details of the composers' lives and walking the streets and entering churches where these great people have previously been changes my relationship with them - enabling me to sense the humanity contained within the spiritual-physical essence of their music. 

The deep gratitude I already had for the gift of music in my life was certainly intensified by these visits. Concurrently the dilemma of how to receive and reconcile this blessing with the glaring problems of the world was once again opened as we were repeatedly confronted with beggars even amidst the grandeur of the Viennese buildings. I have yet to successfully negotiate this issue but it is in wrestling with seeing both dark and light that we become truly human and that we are given the possibility of being witness to God moving in mysterious ways and thus we are blessed. 

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Paris - Rob Hansen

After bidding farewell to Chris, Ria, Nancy & John, Fr John, and our warm community of friends in Exeter, the choir boarded flight BE3505 from Exeter International to Charles de Gaulle, marking the beginning of the continental leg of the tour.

Leaving the airport just in time for Parisian peak hour, our two bus drivers nimbly weaved their way to our hotel in the heart of the sixth arrondissement adjacent to the Sorbonne. As we made our way through the city, we were treated to an exciting glance at two of our momentous concert venues: L'Eglise de la Madeleine and the towers of Notre Dame. It was also a pleasure to see sopranos Katherine Norman and Amy Moore waiting for us at the hotel, both of whom were joining us for the European leg of the tour.

With only a little over 48 hours in France, we kept ourselves very busy: fitting in lunches, museums, and four concerts in two days. The first of these was at the relatively small and unassuming Church of St Louis-en-L'Île in a narrow street on the Île de la Cité. The 18th century building had a stunningly generous acoustic that suited both our Renaissance motets and the crunching chromaticism of Francis Poulenc. Our small but appreciative audience made us feel very welcome, and it was a confident start to our European performances.

A quick trip across town found us at La Madeleine, the towering neo-classical monument to Napoleon which sits in the heart of the eighth arrondissement. It was a surreal experience to sing in the church whose former organists include Camille Saint-Saens and Gabriel Fauré, and the iconic building attracted a bigger audience. It is a total privilege to turn up to these magnificent and historical spaces and then perform for an audience that we've never seen before made up mostly of locals, tourists and passers-by. After an hour to showcase our music, it is incredibly rewarding to see their response.

Early the following day we arrived at Notre Dame for a short concert at 11am. At 10.15 we were met at the side gate and whisked away into the choir room in the basement of the cathedral for a short  rehearsal. Our host would then take us up at 11 for half an hour of singing on the steps of the high altar. The majesty of the building and the large crowds of people passing through made it hard to find the right balance between concentrating on the music and taking in our surroundings.

After taking in one last museum, that afternoon we made a special trip to Valmondois, a small town of 1200 people an hour outside of Paris. There we were met by Laurent de Gaulle, second cousin of our soprano Bella Woods and town councillor. We were welcomed with open arms by him and the rest of the town, including the mayor and deputy mayor, and after a well-received concert in the beautiful medieval church, we were grateful to be treated to a feast with the locals in the town hall.

Rob Hansen
England welcomes the choir from the Antipodes

We were welcomed with some hesitancy, perhaps from previous Australian choir tours to the UK, where it seemed The Choir of St James’ King Street, on our first tour to the UK and Europe, had to prove our worthiness to sing in three of the great churches of England.

As part of the extended family of the regular choir, I embraced this wonderful opportunity with great excitement and trepidation. The gravity of the lack of musical training and experience compared to the others in the choir made me tremble fearfully. It is a delicate situation for the choir to have additional members like me slot in comfortably and bound by uncertainty I was acutely aware I needed to sing well to avoid causing any damage!

All fears melt away once you walk through the cloisters, past the curious crowds of tourists, through the great wooden door into the Abbey, where even more curious tourists and expert professionals eye you up and down, walk under the glorious organ loft and into the quire. As you stand in the choir stalls, heart in mouth, it is not the pressure of the singing act you are about the commence that hits you, but the history and utter beauty of the place you are standing. Daily office has been sung in the Abbey since the tenth century by the first monks, to the present day, even by our illustrious Director of Music himself. And here we are, continuing this beautiful tradition in our own humble way, the choir from Sydney, Australia. Our mouths open, our voices release, our song is upliftingly beautiful, our choir is exquisite. Singing the Lord’s song in a strange land, all heads turn our way, mesmerised. We pass the test.

It felt so natural, arriving at the Abbey, rehearsing in Cheyneygates prior to assembling in the cloisters to be met by our verger, then to enter the Abbey, to a prayer by the residing Canon-in-residence prior to commencing the service. Awesome, and so humbling. A complete privilege. The work load incredible. There wasn’t a great deal of time for sightseeing and exploring one of the greatest cities of the world, as the Choir sang five Evensongs, one Matins and two Eucharists in five days. 
Some services were harder work than others, but each service was sung from the heart and the congregation (and perhaps more importantly the clergy and vergers) were enthralled by our singing and generously embraced our presence with enjoyment and thanks. We may be fortunate enough to receive an invitation to return once again to this monument of the Church and choral music.
As the sun set on a beautiful spring day in April, we contemplated the next parts of our tour. Would we have sung the highlight of our tour already?

I love Winchester. I have since I visited in 2010. The region grows the best watercress. Winchester is another seriously significant city in English history, and the Cathedral is splendid, with the longest nave in Europe. Some of the cathedral was under scaffolding, which did nothing to dampen our enthusiasm for singing there. A world premiere for a certain Mr Elsley, meeting friends and pupils of Kenneth Leighton and a drop in from our dear friends Andy Lumsden and David Hurley of King Singers fame made our two evensong services here intimate and homely. The Wykeham Arms must be one of the most inviting pubs in South England; take your dog!

Leaving Winchester, we drove past Stonehenge, stopped quickly in Salisbury (Salisbury Cathedral with the highest spire in the UK) and on to Exeter by an expert coach driver.

Exeter cathedral is supremely elegant and the Choir seemed to thoroughly enjoy singing there; I for one found the quire the most manageable space to sing in. The cathedral staff seemed the warmest and enthusiastic of our tour; holding a small reception for us, and engaging with great interest with each of us. I think they’d like to have us back; we proved our worth easily. 

What really seemed to make us embrace Exeter with such affection was the family like hospitality shown to us through Warren’s close friends as ex lay vicars and choral scholars from when he was a choral scholar. Lucian Nethsingha seemed so intrigued by us; Paul Morgan turned pages for Marko, and Phil and Nicky Hobbs were consummate hosts and generous in so many ways. For us it felt like family, and indeed we did not necessarily sing the highlight of our tour at the start.

It has been a privilege to be able to sing with the Choir on this tour, and such a deep felt honour to be able to sing daily office in these wonderful churches, and it is only through the opportunities that Warren has given us at St James’ to have been able to achieve such a dream, and with that we all give our gratitude and appreciation.

Lincoln Law