Monday, May 21
by Anna Gebhardt, senior soprano
Waking Up in England
Today, we stayed in England and explored the cities of Chester (where our current hotel is) and Liverpool. Chester is a beautiful and unique town. It has so many distinguishing features, but I’ll just give you the highlights. Our tour guides, Tom and Anita, took us around town early this morning, explaining that it was an important Roman outpost, so people have been here for a long time. There are Roman ruins in several locations, and there is even a ruin of what was an outdoor Roman amphitheatre. The city center is ringed with red stone walls, with the Roman-style gates in the North, South, East and West. All the stone in Chester is supposed to be burnt red, which makes for a beautiful effect. The city is on several little hills, so there is always a lovely change of perspective as you walk around. The winding cobblestone streets are narrow and lined with multiple stories of shops, known as the Chester “rows” because throughout the town, there are rows of shops piled upon each other.
The cathedral is a magnificent sight in the gaps between them, and it’s no less so inside. It was established in 1092, so people have been gathering there to celebrate as a community for more than one thousand years. In addition to concerts, we enjoy singing informally in beautiful acoustics so we sought permission to sing in Chester Cathedral. Permission was not granted (we were told that no visitors had been allowed to sing there for many years) but were allowed to sing in the cloister garden. We stood in a circle around a beautiful sculpture situated in a pool of water. Our singing attracted the attention of the Vice Dean of the Cathedral, who immediately invited us to sing inside the Cathedral! We returned to the church, formed a circle around the altar and sang again. Following that, the Chamber Choir was allowed to sing in the choir of the Cathedral itself. There we sang “O verbum Patris,” which uses a text by Hildegard of Bingen, who lived just a few years before the the intricate wood carvings in the choir area were begun, early in the fourteenth century. The gravitas of the ancient building made this experience quite memorable.
And that was just the first half of the day.
We also sang in the cathedral in Liverpool, which isn’t as old (it was begun at the turn of the twentieth century and was designed by a twenty-one year old architect) but its size kind of makes up for its comparative youth. Our sound seemed enchanting in the huge, reverberent space. The thing is gargantuan and inspiring, with its massive height and gorgeous art. It is unbelievable that it took seventy years to build! I don’t know why it’s not considered one of the seven wonders of the world, it is so mind-blowingly huge. (It’s actually the fourth largest cathedral in the world, I think.) It sits on the hill above the riverfront, where there is a nice path along the river that goes by all the newly developed civic attractions, such as the new Liverpool Museum and the Tate Modern, and most importantly for Drake Choir: THE BEATLES STORY, a museum all about the Beatles. It seemed to me that 98% of the choir has been subject to Beatlemania at some point in their lives, so this was certainly a highlight of the day.
Sunday night, after our concert with the Flint Men’s Choir, a member asked me in his thick Welsh accent, “Do you folks have a busy schedule, then?” I described everything we’ve done so far: we flew from Iowa to Minnesota to Heathrow, the airport in London; went directly to the ultimate symbolic landmark of the British Isles, Stonehenge; rode the coach (ahem, bus) across the beautiful British countryside to our hotel in Hereford; sang our first notes in Europe impromptu in the cathedral there; shared an inspiring and joyful night of singing with the Builth Men’s Chorus in LLandrindod Wells, Wales; and toured through the countryside manor, Erddig, learning all about the “upstairs / downstairs” life of the gentry and their servants from centuries past. He seemed to think that was all quite nice, but he blanched when I said, “Yes, this is just our third day.”
His amazement is warranted! I think I speak for all the Drake Choir members when I say that we have packed the maximum amount of wonderful experiences into our first three-and-a-half days on the island. You would think we’d all be sleeping on our feet, a dysfunctional lot of jet-lagged “yankees” (as a Liverpudlian called me today). On the contrary, though, we are running on adrenaline and well, maybe some of us on a seemingly endless supply of tea. We are living in the moment, as there is so much to see, feel and think in each one. We may be jetlagged, but perhaps it adds to the surreal experience of these foreign communities that are so similar, yet so different from our own. I’ve tried to keep track of all these thoughts and many more, but I think they are all summed up in the first thought I had when I woke up in our English hotel. Something about the grey sunshine streaming in the screenless window seems just a little different. It’s a calm excitement, waking up in England. Yes, we are jetlagged. But I think this experience is making our eyes a little brighter.
Here is the link to 57 photos from Monday: