Choir Tour 2014: USA

On Friday 28th March, the Emmanuel Choir set out on their much-anticipated ten-day tour of the East Coast USA.

On Friday 28th March, the Emmanuel Choir set out from Heathrow on our much-anticipated ten-day tour of the East Coast USA. Buoyed by an extremely successful concert in the Temple Church, London a few weeks before, the choir were in high spirits as we ventured on our virgin trip across the pond.

Our first stop on tour was the bustling jungle of New York City. On our first full day in the city, following a much needed dunkin’ donuts breakfast, we performed a brief concert as part of the Cambridge in America Day at the CUNY Graduate Center. Then in the evening we gave a much longer performance at St. Joseph’s Church, Yorkville. Packing the programme full of Emmanuel’s favourite son, E.W. Naylor, the audience were extremely appreciative of our performance, rising to a person in a standing ovation after the final piece. The next morning we all set out by subway to walk around Central Park, one of the Big Apple’s truly iconic landscapes. A few of us ventured as far as the Lincoln Center, home of both the famous Met Opera and the Juilliard School of Music. Unfortunately, our attempts to look around the Juilliard bore no fruit, despite this author’s insistence that if we were to talk about the merits of Jean Mouton’s Renaissance motets in a loud voice they must surely let us past reception, no questions asked.

In the evening our organ scholars, George and Adam, gave an organ recital at St Mary the Virgin Church, Times Square, after which we sang for the Solemn Evensong and Benediction. Affectionately known as Smokey Mary’s, the copious amounts of incense used during the service made it easy to see why it got the name! Following a short reception, we travelled to the Tribeca area of the city, where Simon Yates (former Emmanuel organ scholar 1989-1992) very kindly treated us to a wonderful supper. Afterwards, about ten of us decided that before bed we would go up to the top of the Empire State Building. The view of the city skyline at night was truly breathtaking, even if the ferocious wind made it difficult to stand out on the viewing platform for too long!

The next day we followed our usual recipe of sightseeing in the morning before making our way to Trinity Church, Wall Street to give a short concert in the early afternoon. Having watched The Wolf of Wall Street on the plane over to the USA, it was slightly surreal walking around an area where money drips from the walls. We also visited the Ground Zero "Reflecting Absence" memorial; an extremely thought-provoking hour or so during a very busy day. Following the concert we all re-convened at Grand Central Station and got on a train to Greenwich, CT. On arrival we were greeted by our host families, with whom we spent the evening. It is fair to say that Greenwich, with its distinctly suburban Desperate Housewives-like feel, came as a real contrast to the manic buzz of Manhattan.

Having caught up on much-needed sleep, we had a very lazy first morning in Greenwich, basking in the rays of the beautiful spring sunshine. After lunch and a communal viewing of the King’s College Choir April Fool’s helium prank, we rehearsed and then performed at Christ Church, being joined by their choir’s excellent young choristers for two of the pieces. After the performance, we were treated to yet another reception, kindly put on by chorister parents and parishioners alike; a personal favourite this time round was the homemade cookies – top marks.

After an early start the next morning, we caught a train to New Haven, home of the illustrious Yale University. Having dropped our bags at the Divinity School we all went exploring around the beautiful Yale campus, much to the disdain of our two Harvard alumni, Kelly and Amrita! For lunch a group of us went to the famous Pepé’s pizza and ate probably the best ‘tomato pies’ of our lives. In the afternoon and early evening we sang Eucharist at the Divinity School’s Marquand Chapel – an event particularly memorable for our assistant Chaplain, Jesse, who was himself at Yale before coming across to Cambridge. After the service we were met by our hosts, made up mostly of students studying at the Divinity School. The next day, following some more sightseeing and a spontaneous game of American Football at the Divinity School, we sang a concert at the Marquand Chapel. We were very grateful to relatives of both Oli and Hannah whose presence at the concert bolstered audience numbers!

After the concert we had an enjoyable last night with our hosts, which made the following morning’s coach to Boston all the more challenging! After lunch and a couple of Cannolis from Mike’s Pastry shop, we all went our separate ways to have a look around Boston. A group of us went to Harvard and discovered that whilst Cambridge might have plenty of University ‘stash’, the range available at the Harvard Coop blows us out of the water; think baby clothes to ping pong balls.

On our first full day in Boston, our local guides Kelly and Amrita took us around the famed Freedom Trail, showing key places in Boston and America’s history. Of particular note was the extremely moving Holocaust memorial found near Quincy Market. In the early afternoon we went to rehearse at Harvard Memorial Church and were met by Edward Jones, the choirmaster of the Memorial Church and yet another former Emmanuel organ scholar (1995-1998). Between the rehearsal and the concert we had a nice long break within which to explore the very attractive Harvard campus. As well as a trip to see the accommodation where the Herchel-Smith scholars from Emmanuel live, a few of us managed to fit in a quick bit of American Football in Harvard Yard (I like to think of myself as a Peyton Manning-type figure in the choir…) and a visit to Mr Bartley’s Burger Cottage, a favoured haunt of Mark Zuckerberg, if the Social Network is to be believed. This author sampled the brilliantly named Beyoncé burger, complete with blue cheese, hot Cajun, bacon, grilled onion, jalapenos, hot sauce and plenty of calories. Much like listening to Queen Bey herself, the burger did not disappoint! Neither for that matter did our final concert of the tour – the benefits of both singing and socialising as a group every day for so long were clear for all to see and hear.

The next day we sang a joint morning Eucharist with the Memorial choir and were ably conducted by Emmanuel organ scholars old and new, Edward Jones and George respectively. Despite some discrepancy between our transatlantic vowel sounds the service was a great success. In the afternoon, a large group of us went to the celebrated Fenway Park to watch the Boston Red Sox take on the Milwaukee Brewers. Despite a loss for the Red Sox, a great time was had by everyone; particularly by Phoebe when she was able to show off her impressive knowledge of all the words to baseball’s archetypal song, “Take me out to the ball game”.

That night we all went out altogether for a final whole choir dinner at an Italian restaurant in Charlestown. A wonderful meal was enjoyed by all, with enough pizza, pasta and salad to feed a small army. The next day on our final morning in the City on a Hill, most people went sightseeing, including a trip to Boston Public Library, much to the delight of Harry. Alas, all good things must come to an end and in the late afternoon we made our way to the airport and with the help of the jet stream (Geography revision is going well…) we arrived back at Heathrow just in time for breakfast. The tour was a huge success and for that we are grateful to everyone who hosted us, everyone who attended our concerts, George and Adam our organ scholars, Richard our choirmaster, and above all John and Naomi for coordinating and managing the whole thing. Without their help none of us would have had such a wonderful time.

Sandy McCleery