Sunday, 31 March 2013

Venice Tour May 2008

Grand Canal from Accademia Bridge
Conducted by Ian Le Grice and accompanied at very short notice by Martin Ford, thirty members of the choir took part in a packed programme of concerts and sight-seeing. Our programme included works by composers including Byrd, Tallis Monteverdi and Viadana, which we sang at concerts in Chiesa di San Pietro di Castello, SS Giovanni & Paolo, and St George’s Anglican Church. We were also able to particpate in a Mass in St. Marks Basilica. Audiences, including the congregation at St Marks, gave us an excellent welcome.

Venice Tour Diary (29-31 May 2008)

Our trip to Venice nearly did not happen when Sue, our musical director, pulled out for personal reasons two weeks beforehand. Ian le Grice magnificently took her place and persuaded a local organist, Martin Ford, to accompany us. Martin had not quite finished his finals at Oxford and we were extremely grateful to him. We were looking forward to singing devotional music in four churches in Venice, including the famous St Mark’s Basilica.

Four members of our party made their own way to Venice, one of them, Alan Clark, by train. The other thirty seven of us and our Rayburn courier, Emily Thorp, gathered at Gatwick for what turned out to be a long journey. Our plane was taken out of service and its replacement was delayed when a paramedic had to come on board to see to a passenger hit by falling luggage. We landed over three hours late. There was then a further delay at Venice airport while we waited for a coach and for Bery’s mislaid luggage.

Three of the early arrivals stayed in a hotel on the Grand Canal. Alan Clark stayed with the rest of us in the hotel Venezia in Mestre, a small industrial town on the mainland. The tiny rooms had small en suite bathrooms like cupboards, but everything worked and the staff were friendly except when the waiters were asked for vegetarian food, something clearly alien to their concept of a decent meal. After dinner the hotel bar turned out to be closed so an intrepid group set out into Mestre, where we found little sign of life. There was a storm in the early hours but happily the rest of our trip was sunny and warm.

The next morning, Friday, we started with a quick rehearsal we should have had the night before. We heard Martin play for the first time and were impressed. He heard us sing for the first time and must have been worried! We were croaky and flat. Optimistic nonetheless we rushed off for our first trip into Venice itself. A coach took us as far as it could, the Piazzale Roma, and then Emily queued for ages for passes for the water bus. Wondering whether we would ever make up for lost time we poured onto the No.1 vaporetto for the scenic route along the Grand Canal, rubbing our bruises after our first brush with local commuters, whose idea of queuing involved much use of elbows and language Vivaldi’s girls never uttered.

 It was then that the first-time visitors to Venice amongst us had our Canaletto moment. The whole experience of Venice from the water was stunning – beautiful buildings, narrow alleyways, small offshoot canals with tiny but curvaceous bridges, gondolas, colour, noise, smells, the complete absence of any vehicular traffic, and the sense that Venice moved at its own pace, uniquely beautiful and unhurried yet teeming with people. We saw leaning towers and terraces where it was no longer possible to live on the ‘ground’ floors, but if Venice is sinking beneath the waves it is probably under the weight of all the tourists!

Eventually we arrived at Giardini and walked to San Pietro di Castello, the cathedral of Venice until 1807, to drop off our formal clothes, and for half of us to grab a hurried lunch before returning to the city centre for a guided tour. Silvana, our guide, decided to skip the Doge’s Palace as too time consuming and we started with St Mark’s, coincidentally our venue for the following day. St Mark’s body had been brought here in 828 in a typically Venetian combination of religion and politics. The building was the fourth to house it, the third on the site next to the Doge’s palace. Inside it was gloomy, but illuminated the next day it was transformed and the gilt ceiling glowed. It was built of brick, like most of the buildings in Venice, in the shape of a Greek cross with five domes, a copy of St Sophia’s in Istanbul. Its golden altar piece is something to behold, even in the half light, as are the fourteen large figures on the screen of the apostles, Mary and St Mark.

On, past the clock (Roman numerals for the hours, Arabic ones for the minutes), to the Bishops’ Palace, known locally as the Pope factory because the Patriarchs of Venice were Cardinals and three of them had become Pope. Then our first sight of the Bridge of Sighs, originally called the Prison Bridge because it took unfortunates into prison from trial and sentence in the Doge’s Palace. Byron gets the credit for renaming it. On across Campo Santa Maria Formosa which, surprisingly, means “buxom”, not an adjective with too many holy connotations in the English-speaking world, to the church of Santa Maria dei Derelitti, a home for waifs and strays dating from the sixteenth century. The girls there became famous for their singing, to the point where crowds wanting to hear them became a nuisance. Silvana got us in to see a delightful small salon dating from 1776 to which the girls’ choir had been moved. The money they raised was used to pay for their weddings, a nice touch. Next, to the trompe l’oeil exterior of the Basilica of Giovanni and Paolo, the largest church in Venice, another of our concert venues, and our tour concluded with the church of St Mary of Miracles.

We had a short rest after the tour, long enough for a small beer and bruschette, before returning to San Pietro for a rehearsal and concert. As Ian had feared, we had to drop Panis Angelicus and the Faure Cantique because the organ could not manage them. The rehearsal went well, with Martin playing wonderfully, but it showed up some lingering weaknesses in the singing for which Ian had to make adjustments. June dropped an earring through the staging and a nice man in jeans and T-shirt lifted it for her so that she could retrieve it. He turned out to be the priest.

The audience of sixty to seventy people included a stewardess given a flyer at Gatwick. Their numbers fluctuated, as did our singing, but they enjoyed it. They were amused to see Ian go up into the organ loft three times to play or to help with the stops (continental organs are not as user-friendly as British ones). Each time, his trousers slipped and he made the choir smile with his surreptitious attempts to hitch them up. At the end of the Salieri Kronungs Te Deum, Martin realised the keyboard would not cope the organ flourish and improvised a suitable finish of his own.

We walked back to the vaporetto talking in whispers because it was past most people’s bedtime, the houses beside the narrow walkways in darkness and the wider areas empty, in contrast to the bustle of a couple of hours earlier.

And so back to the Piazzale Roma the quicker way by vaporetto 52, thirsty after walking and singing in the warmth and humidity of Venice, with time before boarding the coach for a beer or two in anticipation of a dry night in Mestre. To our surprise, the intrepid party found Mestre thronged with people, a market just closing for the day and a live concert in full swing. It was a welcome change from the emptiness of the night before. We could not resist another small beer!

Up the next morning, Saturday, for a busy day’s singing. We returned to the Giovanni & Paolo Basilica via vaporetto 52 to drop off our gear, wandered off for lunch, then went back to the church to rehearse and perform. We were getting into our stride by now. Despite the size of the church and the nature of Martin’s lifeline to Ian – a shaving mirror behind his left shoulder – we put in a creditable performance. An American group overheard before the performance saying they hoped the choir would be singing ‘live’ were not disappointed. We made a nice sound, which wafted off into the huge expanse of church, becoming somewhat angelic in the process. The audience of between 70 and 90 ebbed and flowed and went away uplifted. We had a short break for coffee before moving on to St Mark’s. Many of us were feeling nervous about singing there. It was the most august of our venues and we were taking part in a Mass, not giving a concert of our own. The congregation easily outnumbered our earlier audiences. They looked uncomfortable as we remained silent during the responses, but when the priest eventually told them who we were there was a glow of comprehension which matured into a spontaneous and unexpected round of applause at the end. A communal dinner in the Taverna dei Dogi was tasty if refectory-like and made us a little late returning to the hotel, so we shared a crowded vaporetto with the late evening, sharp-elbowed commuters. Back at the hotel the intrepid group set out once more and found Mestre buzzing again. We sat closer to the entertainment this time, a costly mistake because the drinks were much more expensive. We had to wait longer for them too. When a waitress finally made her way to our table, Nicola asked her for a menu and she went away, never to be seen close-up again. It was worth the wait, though, because Ian regaled us with anecdotes from his musical past.

The next morning, Sunday, was our last and we had to be up early. There was no rest for the intrepid as the three-island boat trip, to which twenty four had signed up, had a 9.30 departure from Piazzale Roma. They visited a glass factory on Murano where they watched a man make a glass horse with just a few pulls of his tongs; saw the Catedrale di Santa Maria Assunta and the Byzantine mosaics on Torcello; and had a hurried lunch on Burano with its brightly coloured houses on the waterfront. On the way back (running late of course) they got caught up among sailing boats and nearly hit one of them.

Those not on the boat trip were free to wander around Venice. I went to the Opera House. Built in 1789-92 and named La Fenice (“Phoenix”), it lived up to its name by being burnt down and reconstructed twice. Napoleon went there in 1807 and six boxes were knocked together to form a sumptuous Royal Box for him. A model of the opera house made in 1854, after the 1836 fire, was helpful in a meticulous reconstruction after the 1996 fire. Completed in 2003, the result is magnificent. Vivaldi lived in Venice and wrote five operas 1844-57. I wanted to visit Vivaldi’s school at the Chiesa della Pieta but it had been, and looks as if it will be, closed for some time.

We gathered at St George’s, the Anglican Church in Venice, for our final rehearsal and performance. Our singing bounced back to us and sounded rich and colourful. Ian told us the building was a double cube and we nodded sagely. The organ was in working order, only non-critical parts fell off. As at the Giovanni & Paolo church we had organ solos and a full choral programme, minus Salieri and Monteverdi. Our appreciative itinerant audience of 40 or so passed a collection plate on their way out since church and vicar were unsupported by the Diocese. After scattering for a bite to eat we returned to Piazzale Roma, where we slaked our thirst while we waited for the coach to take us back across the causeway to our hotel.

As we stood at the airport waiting for what turned out to be an uneventful journey home, we reflected on our few days. Venice had been a real gem, both for those on their first visit and for those who had been before. The performances, in magnificent surroundings, gave shape to the trip, enjoyment to the audiences and publicity for the English choral tradition. Shaida and Charlotte were actually asked whether we were the choir that had been performing in the city. Over the three days we got to know each other better and the indefatigable Holymans earned our respect for their amazing stamina. Our grateful thanks go to Ian, Martin and Shaida for making it possible.

Brian Bennett

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