Tuesday 12 August, 9:00 a.m., St. George’s, Hanover
Mike is registering his Buxtehude now for our performance on the new American instrument in Handel’s church. I just finished practicing my Bach and in a moment we’ll move to Southwark and I’ll prepare Howells for tonight’s voluntary.
10:00 p.m., A pub near Westminster Abbey
How do you sum up a recital at Westminster Abbey – and Franck’s E Major Chorale! – and a private tour afterward? Sublime. BEYOND. EVERYTHING. And the last measures of the E Major Chorale are of the same cloth as the bells pealing at Magdalen – the same sound, the same exuberance.
Wednesday 13 August, 6:00 p.m., Cambridge
Last night we played a few bars on Westminster Abbey’s organ. Then fish and chips with the group. We sat with the Gs and Elaine S and then the five of us went back to UCL together.
Tuesday morning we experienced our first dorm breakfast. What a throwback to college! In retrospect I appreciated the two fabulous inn breakfasts we’d had on the weekend. For the rest of the week, the ultimate college cafeteria fare was our lot. Plentiful, varied, and with all the major players in an English breakfast, but not your finest cuisine, shall we say. The ambience fit the food, and though it was fun to hang out with choristers each morning as we ate, we spent a lot of our time laughing at the terrible and sometimes inappropriate American pop hits blaring from a boom box in the corner.
I set out right at 7:30 with one of our professors for a brisk 25-minute walk amongst London’s morning commuters, arriving at St. George’s Church in Hanover promptly for the beginning of our 8:00 a.m. practice time. Mike went on a goose chase of an errand to mail back the taxi driver’s Tom-Tom and get his dress clothes laundered, arriving at the church an hour later for his share of our practice time, still with the package (post offices weren’t open yet) and the laundry (contrary to its website’s claim, the launderette had no same-day service).
We set out from St. George’s for Southwark, a commute we became quite proficient at. There was no great route, either: our best option included a brisk 10-minute walk from the church to a metro stop just to the north of Buckingham Palace. (Incidentally, Buckingham was problem the only major sight in London that we never at least laid eyes on in passing.) Being at the mercy of the sort of communication people used decades ago, I sat down to the organ console expecting Mr. Neswick to arrive momentarily to help me register a complex English prelude on the fly, which I was due to play that afternoon. (Playing the organ at Southwark was kind of a drag. You could hear almost none of its real sound from where the console sat to the north of the choir. So we were completely reliant on each other’s judgment of sound balances. While this is a common dilemma for organists, I’ve never experienced quite such a bad case of it as exists at Southwark.) Anyway, Mr. Neswick never showed and later I received both email and text from him telling of a change in plans. I made the best of my time and did what I could. Later that afternoon in performance I played notes and let Mr. Neswick work his registrational magic standing beside me. Not the worst way to play Howells.
Mike spent a few moments on the piano in the choir room before making the tedious commute from Southwark to UCL to St. George’s in order to finally situate our last, largest suitcase at the dorm. We’d left it behind the night before rather than dragging it to the Globe. I set out after my practice time back toward St. George’s for our second round of practice, determined to make the most of this commuter-tourist lifestyle we couldn’t avoid. Rather foolishly spending my lunch coins on fudge and a cheese hand-pie of sorts from the glorious Borough Market (more on that later), I took a short ride on the tube, emerging at Westminster station to use my forty-five minutes of free time walking the streets back to St. George’s. I walked along the river past the London Eye, through the governmental buildings, past Trafalgar Square and St. Martin-in-the-Fields, the National Portrait Gallery, and Piccadilly Circus. I enjoyed the chance to see a bit of the city and felt a little less frustrated with the challenge we faced of crossing the city over and over again. I’d been disheartened to think we’d spend so much of our few free moments in London underground. For once, anyway, I’d made the most of the commute.
Our second practice time got cut so short by a double-booking that I had only a couple minutes on the bench before we set off again for Southwark to prepare for rehearsal. Absurd, to have spent so much time crossing and re-crossing town for fifteen minutes of practice, but it was as good as it was going to get. Back at Southwark with one of our colleagues, we wandered through adjacent Borough Market and got a bit more to eat, a decision we were glad of later when our late-night attempts at dinner were met with a lot of closed kitchens. Borough Market was fabulous! A large covered market area selling every sort of international cuisine and many more things besides, it went on and on and was always bustling with people. We were so thankful for it that week, since it afforded us an instant, cheap solution for lunch while we prepared our afternoon’s music.
The service went beautifully. I got to play Howells in an English cathedral – the incredible piece that was the center of my junior recital in college. I also got to accompany the chanting of Psalm 33, which was one of the highlights of my whole trip. That day Mike conducted a fantastic anthem: The Lord Is My Light by Peter Hallock. The service for the day was by Sumsion.
Afterwards a large group of us set off in the rain for a dash across town to Westminster Abbey, where we arrived just in time to take seats for the last of their summer organ recitals. It was played by Martin Ford, the assistant organist who, incidentally, is younger than me. (I am officially an adult.) The program was spectacular, beginning with Reger’s Intro & Passacaglia in D minor, moving on to Bach’s Allein Gott settings and Franck’s E Major Chorale, and ending with Schumann and two Elgar transcriptions. It was sublime. Afterward everyone was corralled out of the space quite quickly and tersely: no staying to tour for free instead of paying the 20L+ entry fee by day! We congregated in front of the choir screen and waited till the commotion died down, explaining to nagging ushers that we had an arrangement to meet with the interning organist. And then, finally, we were escorted up a steep, winding, stair to the top of the choir screen space, which housed the console, pipes flanking it to north and south. The intern gave us a thorough demonstration of the massive instrument, even pulling on the state trumpets (the ones that only play at the entrance of the queen), which blew us away. Then he let everyone have a chance to hop on and play a few bars of something. So we played the organ at Westminster Abbey. No Big Deal. At the end, we climbed down and peeked around to the north side of the nave – “the musician’s corner” – finding there the graves of Purcell, Stanford, Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Howells, Walton (and I’m sure I’m forgetting the rest). You can’t make this stuff up.
We exited the building, giddy and feeling like a bunch of sneaking teenagers up to trouble. Floodlit, the exterior was impressive against the clear night sky. After some deliberation and a lot of waiting around for last-minute photo-ops we settled on a pub just around the corner where we could finally, finally get dinner. This turned out to be the beginning of a new theme: We never ate proper meals in London! By now it was pushing 10:00 p.m. and kitchens were shut up tight. But Pub #1 pointed us to Pub #2 and we cautiously inquired. Their kitchen would still serve us a few menu items, so we sat down and most of us dug into fish and chips. Also a theme: We ate fish and chips half a dozen times in our twelve days in London. It felt like a duty. After finishing our meal we were among the first to leave, hopping the tube towards home after pausing in awe at the sight of the full moon cradled, as it were, in the arm of Big Ben. You can’t make that stuff up, either.