The Choir of St Barnabas, Dulwich visits Italy, 6-16 August 2009

Sharing a watermelon in Norcia; swimming in Lake Trasimeno; ‘the daily flooding of our room...’; reading in the ‘grumpy old men’s corner’. Being crowned ‘slam queen’; getting soaked in the waterfall at Marmore; eating wonderful food; astonishing our fellow passengers by singing I Gotta Key from beginning to end on the funicular railway in Orvieto. ‘Discovering a little lizard in our bathroom at Villa Spirito Santo’; hearing the choir rehearsing in the most stunning setting; wonderful conversations with the children. These are just a few of the ‘magic moments’ recalled by members of St Barnabas Choir Tour Party as we travelled home from this summer’s ten-day visit to Italy.

Based at the beautiful pink-washed diocesan hostel on the outskirts of Terni in Umbria, home town of our Assistant Director of Music, Riccardo Bonci, we gave concerts in the neighbouring towns of Norcia, Spoleto, Perugia and Orvieto, and enjoyed a variety of other excursions and activities. The result was not only a hugely satisfying musical experience, but a fantastic holiday for the 58-strong party, which consisted of 48 singers aged between eight and over 70, three non-singing chaperones (including our Vicar, Revd Canon Dianna Gwilliams) three ‘camp followers’, our amazing drivers John and Barry from Marshall’s coach hire and our equally amazing musical leaders William McVicker, Director of Music at St Barnabas, and Riccardo Bonci.

Recurring themes in our magical memories are water, ice cream and the stunning solo performances of our ‘secret weapon’, 19-year-old soprano Eleanor Wolfe, in Mendelssohn’s Hear my Prayer and the spiritual I Gotta Key. Seemingly unfazed by the complexities of performing in unfamiliar venues with challenging acoustics and difficult sight-lines, Eleanor had a truly inspirational effect on all of us and wowed our audiences.

We had the great privilege of an hour-long private masterclass on Gregorian chant with Fr Maurizio Verde of the Monastery of Santa Maria di Angeli, near Assisi. This was in itself a highlight of the tour, but even more memorable were the looks on the faces of Fr Maurizio and one of his fellow monks when we sang to them Stainer’s God so loved the world, so focused and prayerful, and then in total contrast the exuberant I Gotta Key, featuring Eleanor. They were clearly blown away by our secret weapon!

For many of us the musical high spot of the tour was our concert in the Church of S. Domenico in Spoleto, where there was a real sense of unity and responsiveness. It really did feel as though we were tuning every note, timing every consonant, toning every vowel and we earned a standing ovation from a group of nuns. For others the high spot was our final concert in Orvieto’s spectacular black-and-white cathedral, where even the youngest choristers sang their hearts out with total concentration. This was professionally recorded, so we hope you will be able to hear the results on our next CD. One of our basses, Tigran Grigoryan, had some particularly magical musical memories of the tour, as our repertoire included the ‘Agnus dei’ from his Mass of St Barnabas, written specially for us earlier in the year and extremely well received by our Italian audiences. (This too will be on our CD – we’ve just recorded the full Mass in the very different setting of St Barnabas).

Socially, we will remember the leisurely mornings and evenings on the terrace at Terni when even the most overworked of us were able to relax and enjoy one another’s company. Hidden talents were revealed by our enormously successful drawing and painting project and in the last-night cabaret, the highlight of which was undoubtedly Tigran’s take on a typical Friday night choir practise, plus the internal trips though sun-baked Umbrian countryside. The unscheduled homeward journey (29 hours each way!), over the Gothard Pass to avoid traffic jams instead of through the tunnel as planned was another magic moment, as breathtaking Alpine views unfolded before us.

Clare Stevens

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