Reading Phoenix Choir and the Tour of Spain

There are many reasons why choir tours are so enjoyable. Musically they are an opportunity to master a set of pieces, to really gel as a choir and to perform at our best in impressive venues to responsive and large audiences. Socially, it gives us time together. Old friendships can be nurtured and watered with alcohol. New bonds form and more recent members are integrated into the group.

All of these qualities were present on our recent tour to Spain. But also a tour is like watching, or even being in, a film that carries you away psychologically. Normal responsibilities and concerns fall away to be replaced by a focus on the choir, on singing and on playing our part in the wider, bigger story.

All of which waffle is an explanation for the section headings below, which are taken from an analysis of classic Hollywood films. So sit back and enjoy ‘Reading Phoenix Choir and the Tour of Spain’ as told by Simon Wellings, Tenor 1.

The Setup

We start with a montage introducing you to the characters. Some sit bleary-eyed in a car on the still-dark M25 quietly listening to the cricket. Others are sipping Buck’s Fizz and learning rude Spanish on the 06:34 from Reading to Gatwick.

Our flight to Madrid was uneventful, save for some noisy babies, a smelly cat and Rebecca being told to keep her clothes on for safety reasons. At Madrid airport we were met by Pilar, our tour rep whose friendly efficiency was unfailing throughout the tour. Next we boarded a nice modern coach that didn’t smell at all of alcohol for a trip across the cold and gloomy Spanish countryside. Late afternoon we arrived at Burgos, our base for the next 3 nights.

Burgos is a lovely town, but that evening we mostly saw its bars and restaurants, notably Bar Victoria which kept an electronic running total of how many glasses of Vermouth it had served. The choir tour WhatsApp group was lively, and for a while resembled foodie Instagram as choir members shared pictures of their dinner. Meat and chips featured heavily – vegetables less so.

The New Situation

Like most days, we had the morning to ourselves, starting with a group breakfast. The spirit of the film ‘Carry on Abroad’ hung in the air most mornings as we poor Brits in Spain sought and failed to find a decent cup of tea. Jason had planned ahead and brought his own tea bags and Marmite, but properly hot water or nice milk were not to be found, let alone a pre-warmed tea-pot with a knitted cosy. I sought to project a sophisticated Spanish air by eating bread with olive oil, stewed tomatoes and ham, but let myself down eating it by pouring oil down my sleeve. We took solace in attempting to tell the difference between machine Cappuccino (weak coffee plus frothy milk) and Cafe con Leche (frothy milk plus weak coffee). Gill needed six to get the day fully started.

Burgos was lovely, if cold. Its highlights include beautifully intertwined pollarded plane trees, a castle on a hill, a museum and the cathedral. This last was large but somewhat cluttered with side chapels. An extremely comprehensive audio guide pointed out the many features but was most proud of the coffin of El Cid, a local hero / brutal mercenary / sophisticated man of many cultures. The coffin is rather short and has locks on the side, implying some concern he might burst out again. In my patchy hand-written notes from tour I have written ‘attacked by an eagle’ next to El Cid’s coffin. I now have no idea why.

The baritones were particularly drawn to the Museum of Human Evolution and its displays of primitive men. It contains impressive specimens of early humans, including the ‘Elvis Pelvis’ which was part of a skeleton found – all shook up – in a nearby cave. Suspicious minds might think they were buried by a hound dog, but apparently not.

Progress

Burgos cathedral contains an undisclosed piece of Thomas Becket, a holy relic of the meddlesome priest murdered in Canterbury cathedral. This link to medieval Christendom is a reminder of the time when believers from Britain would go on pilgrimages across Europe. Both Burgos and our first two concert venues sit on the road to Santiago de Compostela, a route still in use today.

Our first concert was on Wednesday in the Iglesia de la Asunción de Nuestra Señora, Melgar de Fernamental. The church itself is large with a good acoustic, but sits in a small village that seemed deserted when we arrived. The rehearsal blew away some cobwebs and reminded many of us of the tricky corners we’d not yet learnt properly; there had been a lot of copies of the Lauridsen Soneto and Morales being studied on the coach and plane.

We then moved into a nearby cinema where we changed and snacked, wondering if we’d get an audience. We’d been told that concerts in Spain don’t start on time. The published time is a guide, after which we wait for about 10-15 minutes until the organisers judge no-one else is going to turn up. Walking into this church was a pleasant surprise as it was pretty full. Somehow the empty streets had delivered an audience.

A really keen audience too. We got a standing ovation before we’d sung a note and a smiley man near the front gave us all a double thumbs up. Buoyed by their enthusiasm we sailed through some choppy waters to deliver a pretty good concert. We moved someone to tears in Ca’ the Yowes, and not in a Town Hall sort of way either. There was some intrigued nudging of neighbours in the Soneto, suggesting it was recognisable Spanish. We got a standing ovation at the end as well and happily filed back into the coach for a late return.

Thursday morning saw more time to get to know Burgos, or to track down the perfect churros and hot chocolate. On the coach again, we were travelling further on the pilgrimage route towards Sahagún.

Our venue was the Santuario de la Peregrina which has a gorgeous acoustic, the sort where when you stop singing you get to hear what the choir sounds like from a distance. We were sounding good.

Before the concert we had a group meal, in an otherwise deserted local restaurant. Rice with vegetables (controversially called paella) was followed by meat, except for vegetarians who were given a special card to guide the restaurant. There were two waiters, one big, one small, who gave out portions in proportion to their size. Wine was taken and there was a relaxed energy to the room. There’d been fewer copies on the coach – we were mastering the new pieces and we knew it.

Some walked back to the church and were awarded by an encounter with a large flock of sheep passing through the town. Once again there was a large friendly audience. The local informality went a little too far as some guys taking photos carried on talking during a quiet piece. Chris H had to deploy his sideways death stare while conducting; Paddington Bear would have approved. Another good concert, with fewer rough edges and some audience dancing during Chili. They saved their standing ovation for the end, but it was no less appreciated.

There is documentary evidence of these concerts, thanks to the tour HAGS (Husbands And Girlfriends) who skillfully wielded smart-phones and provided familiar faces in every audience.

By now we were mastering the pleasures of tour. First is poorly translated English menus such as: Cheese Goat; Roasted Bend; Thistles in Sauce; Smashing potatoes. Another favourite is drinking on the coach after a concert. When we first started doing this Pilar calmly pointed out that the driver didn’t want us to do this. But, having done her duty she left us to get on with it. At the front of the bus things were civilised: Howard used his cork-screw and provided plastic cups. Towards the rear things were more about plastic cartons of ‘Don Simon’ for €1.50 and gin in water bottles.

Complications and Higher Stakes

Within any good story, you know our heroes will triumph in the end but there has to be some trials and tribulations first. Think of 1940-41 in World War Two, or Luke Skywalker losing his wing-man attacking the Death Star. Was our day in Ávila like Pearl Harbour, our darkest-before-the-dawn moment?

Of course not. But we were a bit tired by then, so let’s just go with the analogy.

With no regard for dramatic structure, Friday was sunny and warmer. So far we’d been shivering until leaden skies, wondering where the Spanish sunshine had got to. But on our coffee stop from Burgos to Ávila we actually got to sit in the sun and turn a little pinker.

En route we assuaged a mother’s guilt and all sang Happy Birthday via a video link to Rebecca’s youngest. For added drama, Chris had to quickly sit down while conducting as we were about to pass some police cars who apparently don’t like that sort of thing (the standing, not the conducting).

We arrived in the walled medieval city of Ávila, left our belongings in the Auditorio de San Francisco, a deconsecrated church and went to find lunch. Some of us ended up in the house of Tomás Luis de Victoria, whose music we were singing on tour. He was out, but we still ate in his restaurant which had an enjoyably hard to translate menu.

Next sightseeing. Ávila has extensive walls and a cathedral famous for its use of blotchy red ‘bloody stone’ (deeply altered granite from a Mesozoic weathering front, I know you were wondering). We enjoyed wandering around, but the walls were long and decent food for a pre-concert meal hard to find.

The venue was a little bare and had an acceptable acoustic, but we’d been spoilt. We got a decent audience but they sat far away and seemed less engaged, a little slower to give a standing ovation at the end. As the final notes of our last piece fell silent an enthusiastic voice shouted ‘round of applause!’. Show, not tell, we thought to ourselves.

We had a 90 minute trip to Salamanca after the concert where we drank and sang. Even the booze turned against us. A bottle of prosecco opened explosively, getting several damp. Some gin fell on Angela and Ávila’s carton of Don Simon was €1.70, a steep increase. Some enthusiastic singing of musicals (from A-Z) raised spirits and got us through to Salamanca, where we could see grand majestic buildings flood-lit before us. We were singing in the cathedral that sat imposingly in view out of the bus window. Were we up to it? Would we have the energy to win over a discerning university audience in a venue where choirs have sung for 900 years?

Such thoughts were running through our heads as we readied for sleep that night (for me alongside annoyance that the tune from Phantom of the bloody Opera was stuck in my head).

The Final Push

Salamanca is impressive. Site of the western world’s third oldest university (beats Cambridge) and a UNESCO world heritage site, it was well worth the walking tour on Saturday morning. We learnt that the cathedral is actually two, new and old nestled together. We were to sing in the old cathedral, in front of its gorgeously decorated Apse topped by a depiction of the end of the world. Local traditions around receiving a doctorate from the University include a final oral exam where if successful the candidate holds a bull-fight and writes their name in blood on the walls of buildings (I fell off a punt just before mine, not quite as stylish).

There was a festival in the town that day. In our hotel and around town we saw ladies in amazing wide and gorgeously patterned dresses. The men were also in bright traditional dress. I’m told the choir uniform sub-committee was taking notes. Raucous bands, with drums and brass filled the streets and led general dancing, everyone was having a great time.

By the time we were walking up from the hotel to the cathedral, we were feeling quite tired and a little nervous. Would we do ourselves justice? Would anyone really leave the vibrant bustle of the streets and squares to come and see us?

We got there to see a queue stretching halfway around the building, quietly waiting. Must be for evening Mass or something… As we assembled in our back-stage room (which was bigger than many of our normal venues) we got confirmation that they were actually coming to see us. All of them.

On time for once, we walked on for the concert (past Charlie Steer’s smiling Spanish twin) into an audience of around 450 filling the cathedral and sitting close around us. Any tiredness was swept away by a huge wave of adrenaline.

It was an amazing and emotional concert. The audience was warm and appreciative and we responded by really going for it – no need to save our voices any more. A loud man just behind Rebecca shouted Bravo after the Bog and Lotti and we knew they liked us throughout. The audience had started to prepare to leave after the final advertised piece, so by the time we spread out for the final Tebye the boundary between audience and choir was very blurred. We were just fellow members of a mass of humanity, all sharing the same intense musical experience.

I always think you could do an interesting video, comparing a choir before a concert, nervously pacing and grimacing at sheet music with the chattering, grinning loons afterwards, spinning around the room and excitedly sharing the joy of a great gig, riding the endorphin rush together.

Like this we spilled onto the streets of Salamanca back to the hotel, being spotted and congratulated by audience members on the way. A quick change and out into a bar. We wanted drink and we wanted to be together and so found a bar for some dancing. Slowly those with less energy, or with fewer moves like Jagger broke from the Status Quo and drifted back to bed.

What remains of a night like that are flashes of the choir’s memory, sudden vivid images. Running towards fireworks at 1am, of Chris Hann doing press-ups in a square, but facing down slope and nobody knowing why, not even him. Karaoke? Really? (checks photos, oh yes indeed there was). We have evidence from social media of a small band of revellers greeting the dawn, riding the performance rush all the way to the end.

The Aftermath

Travelling home is always bitter-sweet, but our journey back was pleasant enough. A scenic drive and calm efficiency saw us back to England. Howard left his trusty corkscrew in hand-luggage and so it was sacrificed to the gods of security. Choir were able to replace it at his birthday soon afterwards.

We were tired but happy. Angela looked liked she’d been attacked by gin again, this time from the inside, (she was not alone in this).

Structurally, these final moments of a film reflect on the emotional journey the characters have been on and maybe set the stage for a sequel. In real life we did this on WhatsApp, as on Monday at work we shared how unreal our real lives now seemed, how lacking in the intensity and sense of common enterprise a good choir tour gives us.

This trip was indeed a really great choir tour and there will surely be a sequel. This is a franchise that should run and run, a story that deserves to be retold over and over.