Sunday, 31 March 2013

Paris Tour 2012


Stephen Oliver's Paris Diary

Paris 2012 photos 1
Paris 2012 photos 2 

6 June

There we all were at the Horseshoe, on time – doubtless to our Music Director's surprise - even
though it was 6 o'clock in the morning, awaiting the arrival of the coach. Where was it? Our
Chairman's broad smile suggested there was no need to worry. Fifteen minutes later, in a carefully
planned coup de théâtre, the coach pulled alongside, sporting banners announcing to the passing
world that we were St Cecilia Chorus, of Banstead, London. Corporate identity confirmed, we
loaded, boarded and were off: at 6.33, only trois minutes au derrière de schedule.

By 8.00 am we had caught up and were in Dover, where for the first time we heard the voice of our
driver, Charles. If after driving Royals around the previous Jubilee weekend he felt any sense of letdown, he was too much the gentleman to show it. The gist of his message was: Don't use the coach
loo, in case... You aren't schoolchildren, so I won't say anything about chewing gum or throwing
shoes. When outside don't press the 'outside' button.

The Dover-Calais crossing provided many of us with second breakfasts, and for those who fancied the sea breeze in their hair but not in their lungs, the chance to join Ian and pipe on the deck area designated 'smokers only'.

On French soil there was serious motoring to be done: four hours of it, with only one brief lunch
stop at the half way point before we were off again to the sound of munching, and the appearance of
Geoff the Rubbish Collector doing his rounds: He'd look good in a mini-skirt, Ian was heard to say.

Morale-boosting announcements followed from Geoff the Tour Guide: the cost of the scheduled
river cruise had been reduced, we were told; the Eiffel Tower and Sacré Coeur were in sight
[general scepticism]; Charles would take us on the scenic route past the Arc de Triomphe [look out
for the eternal flame... that burns always] and down the Champs Élysées. So far so good. A hint of
trials ahead came when we checked in at the Marriott Rive Gauche: it was 4.30 pm with our first
concert at the Madeleine due to start at 7. First there was the lifts saga – please don't ask – oh all
right then, let's just say it involved depressingly large numbers of sane and sensible adults being
baffled by modern technology. Then there was the slight snag that some, including our esteemed
Treasurer Charlotte, hadn't been allocated rooms at all, while others found themselves adjacent to
lift shafts, insomnia guaranteed. Ask Kate and Caroline. A time extension was granted by the ever pragmatic Geoff: Be ready for the coach in your concert gear by 5.30 [You'd better tell Ian 5.00,
commented Jonathan darkly].

When, thanks to the volume of rush-hour traffic in the Place de la Concorde, we finally reached the
Church of the Madeleine at 6.10, our leaders' brows were seriously corrugated. Disregarding the
obvious main entrance, with Greek temple portico, pillars and flight of flower-filled steps, Jonathan
and Ian plunged through a side door that led to yet another lift which didn't appear to be working.

Everyone followed. Five minutes later we had extricated ourselves, used the main entrance and
reached the interior, a vast, dark, echoing rectangle, with no side aisles and ranks of candles guttering in side chapels. There was no clerical representative to be found, only a dusty verger who
pointed out the chamber organ up by the high altar [the giant Cavaillé-Coll instrument at the West
end being for solo concert use only]. No time to lose; we had twenty minutes, only, to practise the
starts, only, of our eight pieces, and for Ian to reach a rapprochement with the unknown organ.
Jonathan made us sing a single arpeggio, cut us off short, and said 'Listen'. The sound carried on
and on around the church, enthralling in its way but also worrying. Crotch's breves should be OK
but how would Britten's semiquavers fare? There were final instructions: Sing softly, basses.

Everybody - no fidgeting between pieces. This is Fauré's church; just think of that and do him
justice! Don't listen to the organ, watch.

Ranged in front of the high altar, and stacked on the narrow altar steps in too close proximity to
each other for comfort, we had a good view beyond Jonathan into the nave. There was certainly an
audience sitting out there, made up not only of our own trusty camp followers but Parisians,
numbering well over 100 [I counted]. Geoff the Altar Boy had already straightened the cloth on the
altar separating us from Jonathan; now, as the clock struck 7, Geoff the Linguist addressed them
from the lectern. With the aid of Nicola's impeccable translation of his English into French and his
own inimitable delivery of that language - as it is spoken - he told them [and here paraphrase must
come to my aid] that

We'd set off from Banstead près de Londres at six heures that matin; asked them to make allowances s'il vous plaît if we sounded un peu knackered because we vraiment were;that we were trés heureux d'etre ici; that there'd be nul plusières announcements as the programmeshad been déja circulées, and please donnez un welcome a nôtre maître de choeur, Jonathan Rennert.

And suddenly it was time: Waterloo. Not only would we have to sing well, we would have to remain standing in our ranks, utterly immobile, for fully 60 minutes. Ian launched into Parry's I Was Glad, and moments later we were singing that glorious first entry, mezzo forte at first, as per instructions, and then crescendo-ing into glad.

All things considered, it went remarkably well. Fauré's Cantique de Jean Racine must have been heard many times in that space, no doubt directed by its composer, and two of Ian's solo organ items
too, by Vierne and Clérambault. Certainly Haydn's Insane and Vain Curates. But certainly not
Crotch's Let Sinai tell or Paul Mealor's Ubi Caritas – both will have been first performances there -
and probably not Britten's Jubilate, and Dyson's Magnificat in D. Parry's Blest Pair of Sirens and I
Was Glad are likely vade mecums for English choirs, but aren't likely to have cropped up that often.

Warm applause followed the end of the performance, Nicola's ex-students were waiting to greet her,
other audience members seemed happy to chat, Charlotte with a bag of euros in hand, as requested,
was vainly seeking someone in authority to give it to; and we tottered back to the coach and the
dubious delights of Marriott Hotel cuisine warmed by adrenaline and the sense of a job well done.

7 June

At 10 next morning, all too soon for some, we gathered to rehearse in the bowels of the Marriott's
Conference Centre. In the puzzling absence of a William Crotch Room, we made do with the chairless and intermittently blacked-out Miles Davis Room. No false sense of security was permitted:
Jonathan reminded us that we needed to tighten up on certain areas. The tenors shifted their feet
uncomfortably, each soprano dug her neighbour in the ribs and the altos hid behind each other, and
the basses smiled with unjustified complacency. Dyson's Magnificat warranted, and received, a
complete sing-through; Mealor, though for safety sung with accompaniment at the Madeleine, still
needed work on its tuning; and a tour of Blest Pair's rough edges rounded off Jonathan's 25-minute

It was time for our lunchtime concert at St Sulpice. Enjoined by Geoff the Disciplinarian to Get off
the coach quietly, we found ourselves among the covered market stalls of the Place St Sulpice,
trading in high-class antique books, prints, maps and Burgundy. St Sulpice is a huge and imposing
1660 building, cathedral-like in its dimensions and cavernous in its dusky recesses. One side chapel
held Delacroix frescoes, the domed crossing was like St Paul's, and the high altar was far away in
the distance. This time there were clergy to consult: it was decided that we would sing in the ante
chapel behind the high altar, clustered around Ian at a central chamber organ. The audience –
anyone who our indefatigable camp followers could round up, though we were advertised on the
church doors – would sit in the choir stalls immediately to our left and right. Some 60 or so did;
doubtless others who we couldn't see sat in the body of the nave or listened as they wandered round.
Jonathan's stern call for discipline in the ranks ['There's a Mass going on!'] combined with the
opportunity to sit down during Ian's solos and the general feeling that we now knew exactly what
we were doing, enabled our performance to catch fire, and each item drew an appreciative response.

Apart from the pleasure we derived from a job well done, throughout the concert there was a
mesmerising sideshow for those of us near Ian, nonchalantly tie-less in the engine room. To Thea
who was page-turning, he kept up a chatty running commentary, presumably about the music or the
instrument, but quite possibly about the latest test match score or weather forecast, breaking into
smiles or grimaces, and reaching for the stops as if they were jelly babies. Ever the shy maestro, he
avoided taking a bow at the end, claiming he hadn't had time to put his tie on.

[Footnote: Surprised to find him, half an hour before the start, walking towards the exit for a session
with his pipe rather than using every minute of the time available to further his acquaintance with
the unfamiliar organ, I had asked Ian whether today's organ would be any easier to manage than
yesterday's. With as fine a Gallic shrug as one could wish for, he had replied: The way I look at it, if
something goes wrong - as it will - it can't be helped. It's not as if anything I do will start a world war.]

After this, our second concert in 18 hours, we deserved a break. Geoff the Travel Agent had booked
a river cruise for those who wished, and most availed themselves of the opportunity to sit and let
Parisian life slide by. By 6.00 pm, restored, we disembarked at the Pont Neuf, free from deadline
until the following afternoon. It was chacun à son goût. There were glints in many an eye as we
melded into the crowds on the pavements, intent on lightening purses and wallets in the pursuit of

8 June

A morning of cultural splurge for some [the Musée D'Orsay or Musée du Moyen Age], sight-seeing
[Montmartre] for others, and shopping for those mindful of our soprano Anna's comment that
Frenchwomen possess 'effortless elegance'.

Then it was back on our coach, mid-afternoon, for the journey to Reigate and Banstead's twin town,
Brunoy, a sleeper-town for commuters to Paris, but girdled round by lakes and parkland rather than
the M25. Charles' sat nav took us through some surprisingly traffic-ridden byways but we arrived
eventually to find Danielle, the President of the Brunoy Choir, waiting for us at the side of the busy
ring road. It was necessary to de-bus, clutching concert kit, and file in an orderly crocodile up a side
road, over a bridge, past a little château and up the hill to the centre.

Inside the Église St Médard, what a surprise: instead of the austere neo-classicism we'd met so far,
here was baroque gaiety, a gold and white nave, chandeliers down the middle, frescoes in the side
aisles [even one of St Cecilia with portative organ] and a new organ at the West end built as an
authentic replica of a C18 original and thus bereft of the mod cons any well-travelled organist of
today might reasonably expect. The challenge presented to Jonathan and Ian and indeed all of us
was could we keep together? New the organ may have been, but to view the conductor's beat Ian
had to lean way out to his right to see Jonathan, diminished to pigmy size with a pronounced bend
in his body, through a mirror. When we began to rehearse, there was much less resonance to help us
than we'd been used to, and bizarrely bright sounds that would have surprised Parry and Co, as they
did us, emanated from the organ. Ian called down that he was having to play ahead of the beat,
whenever he did catch sight of it. 'That's the first time Ian's admitted to watching me', Jonathan told
us sotto voce, at which the response floated down from afar, 'Well I can't do it any more, it's too
much of an effort'.

[Note for organoraks – others skip: Ian later told me that the Brunoy organ's pedal boards typify
French 18 th Century organ building practice in going down to A, three notes lower than in their
period German counterparts – not helpful for Britten in C, where he's used to finding the recurring
and important bottom C with ease because it is the bottom note on the pedal board. To make life
even more difficult, the Brunoy organ has 'shove coupling' which he had only previously
experienced on harpsichords, and stubby short keys on the pedals, since they were intended chiefly
for playing slow moving plainsong melodies. Other hazards included the variously-coloured first
letters of the words on each stop, each colour relating to a particular manual if you could remember
in the heat of the moment which corresponded with which.]

Jonathan decided, in a move dictated more by practicality than bravado, that Ubi Caritas would be
unaccompanied this time; we were reminded to watch, whatever happened, and we repaired to the
hall where the Brunoy Choir equivalent of Bery and her Food Squad had laid out a cold buffet for
us. 'Remember, it's not good to sing on a full stomach', Jonathan told us plaintively, but he was too
late: we were stuck in, and the gaze of the less responsible tenors and basses was already fixed on
the red wine. Then there were speeches of welcome and thanks, by and from Danielle, Jean the

Brunoy Choir Chairman and Geoff; the presentation by Geoff the Diplomat of an engraved goblet to
Danielle and a turned-wood bowl [by David] to Jean, and the exchange of Entente Cordiale embraces on each cheek [Geoff a natural at this]. But time was running out. The Ladies retired to various room cupboards to change, and the Gentlemen made do with one end of the hall. The church nave was gratifyingly full of choir members [presumably], music-lovers and curious citizens.

This being our third stab at our programme in three successive days, we really knew it. Coordination
may have faltered once or twice, but we were home and dry, responding to Jonathan's shaping of phrases and dynamics.

Blest Pair simply soared into the ether. Ian changed his solos to take advantage of the instrument, giving us in place of Bach an authentic account of the Clérambault, its final bass note richly flatulent. Once, during the uncharacteristically bright sounding intro to Faure's Cantique, we heard muffled expletives from the organ loft – something along the lines of 'Oh bother' - which caused Jonathan to raise a quizzical eyebrow. It was Ian, searching vainly for an elusive stop. That was in fact the piece that provoked the most enthusiastic response from the audience. We probably could have, should have, encored it. Kevin, that most conscientious of tenors, was heard was to say afterwards, 'I could see Danielle mouthing the words, so I tried to copy the shapes her mouth made, in the hope it would improve my pronunciation.' We finished to rapturous applause, and compliments from the audience as they filed out, one being, 'You are the best choir I've heard'. [Diarist's note: This is not invention].

It was time for final team photos. The light was fading as we left the church, and climbed the cobbled alleys to the coach, but there was enough to keep the snappers happy. Then it was handshakes, waves, lots of 'Hope to see you in Banstead', and back to Paris, where Marianne was moved to say, watching Ian prepare to leap first off the coach to find a beer, 'I've never seen him move so fast.'

9 June

Our departure from Marriott's and packing of bags was overseen, naturally, by our omnipresent
Chairman, who marked the occasion by wearing yet another hat, this time a literal one. With black
beret on he was nothing less than Geoff the Onion-Seller and our grins as the cameras came out to
capture the moment couldn't have been broader if we'd been asked to say 'Crotch' instead of
'Cheese'. Our ferry crossing was delayed by the high winds that had swept the UK in our absence,
but we made up time by catching an earlier boat [work that out] and arrived in Banstead at 9.15 pm,
ahead of schedule.
The organisers of the trip, Geoff and his recce-partner David, had done us proud,
Charlotte's financial know-how likewise, and our star professionals, the expert and unflappable
Jonathan and Ian, had carried us to the musical heights. We had certainly bonded; I like to think our
Chairman would have said we'd enjoyed our 'bondage'. And the last word should go to the stranger,
who, watching us in the hotel foyer, asked who we were. Told we were a choir, she replied that
she'd never have guessed it as we seemed to be having so much fun.

To view photos from the trip please click on the albums below:


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