Choral scholar and Somerville Choir member, Carys Miller (English, 2014), reports on the Choir’s recent tour of America.
Wow what a year, what a tour!
2015/16 was quite a year for Somerville Chapel Choir. Beginning Michaelmas term 2015 with new Director of music Benjamin Goodson, the Choir embarked on an ambitious year of choral singing, which featured among its highlights a performance of the Bach St John Passion with a professional orchestra and soloists, to a sellout audience in the Somerville Chapel.
At the start of Hilary term 2016, the Choir made a collective decision that the perfect way to end an exciting year of music-making would be to go on a summer tour, in order to strengthen the group dynamic and share its talent with wider audiences. In light of the success of the Choir’s 2014 tour to the States, it was agreed that a follow-up American adventure was in order.
Thanks to extremely generous support from the Somerville community and alumni, the choir successfully crowdfunded using the Somerville platform, raising over £7000 in donations which, when matched with individual contributions and some extra financial help from the College, meant that the tour could become a reality. The Choir could not be more grateful to all those who donated and supported the campaign, as without them, the tour would not have been possible.
The 2016 tour began on the 28th August when the choir flew from Heathrow to JFK airport, arriving in New York in the early hours of the morning. There was little time for recovery, as 9am saw the Choir making its way, bright and early, to a rehearsal for its first concert of the trip. The rehearsal space at St Luke’s, Greenwich Village was conveniently only around an hour from the Choir’s Brooklyn accommodation and so, after a few coffees, and a standing nap on the subway, everyone cracked on with polishing the tour repertoire before a well-attended lunchtime recital at the beautiful Trinity Church, Wall Street. Starting off the trip singing at such a prestigious venue was truly inspiring, and the Choir was very grateful to everyone at Trinity, both staff and audience, who made the performance so enjoyable.
Following the first performance, everyone had the afternoon off for some sight-seeing, which was particularly enjoyable seeing as, for many members of the Choir, the tour marked their first time in New York. There was little shortage of things to see and do, and the time between rehearsals was packed full of quality time spent together as a group.
The second performance of the tour took the Choir to St Joseph’s Church, Yorkville, on Thursday 1st September. The highlight amid a selection of Anglo-American choral music was Benjamin Britten’s fiendishly difficult Hymn to St Cecelia, which the Choir performed first at a concert in Oxford, and perfected across the pond. The concert in Yorkville was a particular thrill, as the Choir was able to meet Alistair Reid, an Old Somervillian who began his own singing group at Somerville when he was organ scholar at the University. In his own words, he doesn’t claim to have started the Choir, but ‘there certainly wasn’t a mixed choir at Somerville back then’. Alistair is currently Director of Music at St Joseph’s, and was delighted to host his fellow Somervillians for a concert. The performance went down really well, and everyone was delighted when one audience member put up her hand to request an encore at the end!
After a brief rest, the following Saturday evening saw the Choir performing a recital to the residents of Greenwich, Connecticut in what was a truly lovely occasion for all involved. Once again, the congregation and audience made the Choir feel incredibly welcome, and it felt really good to be sharing Somerville’s musical talent with such enthusiastic listeners.
On Sunday 4th September, the choir had the privilege of singing at 11am Mass in the choir loft of St Ignatius Loyola in New York, a truly awe-inspiring venue. Around 500 people attended the service, in which Somerville Choir featured, and there was an incredibly humbling round of applause from all present at the end for the visiting choir ‘all the way from Oxford, England’.
The morning service was followed by an evening mass at Grace Church, New York: yet another stunning venue, which the Choir was incredibly excited to be singing in. One of the best things about the tour was getting to perform such a varied mixture of repertoire in such a small space of time. It really challenged everyone as musicians and helped the Choir sing together better, in preparation for the coming year.
On the 5th September the Choir left New York and made its way to Washington DC, taking a day’s break from rehearsing and performing to take in the famous sights of the nation’s capital. The rest of the time in Washington was spent preparing not only for the last performance of the tour, but also for the ambitious concert taking place in St Martin in the Fields, Trafalgar Square in November 2016, in which Somerville Choir, in partnership with the Lea Singers, will sing Tallis Spem in alium, Brahms Geistliches Lied, Bruckner Motets and the Schubert Mass in G. The rehearsal time was greatly needed for such challenging pieces.
With great sadness, the Choir gave its final performance of the tour on the 7th September at the Memorial Baptist Church, Arlington Virginia. Once again, the congregation were incredibly warm and welcoming, providing a lovely meal before the concert and generally making the performance an occasion to remember.
After a brief period back in New York, the Choir flew home on the 10th September, and it’s safe to say no one was ready to return home. The Choir had the most unbelievable time touring in New York and Washington and was extremely fortunate to have been given the chance to perform in such beautiful and prestigious venues in both cities, providing everyone with experiences that will never be forgotten.
The tour was slightly bittersweet, as it turned out to be the last time the Somerville choir would be conducted alone by Director of Music Benjamin Goodson, who has secured an impressive appointment as the new assistant of the chief conductor of the Rundfunkchor Berlin. The Choir is currently in the process of appointing a new Director, and wishes Benjamin all the best in his new role. It’s safe to say that the tour was the highlight of an incredibly successful year for Somerville College Choir under Benjamin’s fantastic leadership.
For more information, photos and clips of the tour, please head to the Choir of Somerville College Oxford’s Facebook page, and all those who generously donated to the tour will receive their rewards shortly.