“Stranded in Seattle – Exiled in Edmonton”
“Be careful what you wish for!”
The story of the
Rochester Cathedral Voluntary Choir
Tour to America, April 2010
They don’t normally have Choral Evensong on weekdays at the little Episcopal Church of St Barnabas on Bainbridge Island, a short ferry ride (with breathtaking mountain views) just across the water from Seattle, in America’s Pacific Northwest; nor do they at All Saints’ Anglican Cathedral in downtown Edmonton, the capital of Alberta in Canada; in fact Choral Evensong is hardly ever heard in either of those places. But then, it isn’t every day you have an English cathedral choir stranded in your backyard because a volcano has erupted, their airspace is closed and their homeward flights cancelled.
WH Auden was being more prophetic than he realised when he wrote the verses that Bryan Kelly later used for his anthem He is the way: “You will see rare beasts…” (We did: deer; arctic hare; eagles; teenagers) “…and have unique adventures…” (They don’t come much more unique than this) and “you will come to a great city that has expected your return for years” (well, Rochester certainly had to wait many days for us; it didn’t quite run to years, though it could have been much longer than it was). Indeed, some of the most interesting and memorable things happened in the week and a half between the official end of the tour and the choir’s eventual return home.
But more of that later.
The tour began – as all our three previous tours to America had begun – at what the younger members now call “daft o’clock”. And I particularly mention the younger members – with all due respect and no discourtesy intended to those born earlier – because the age range and balance of this choir has changed dramatically over the last two years, and the general atmosphere on this tour was markedly different from (or different than, as our American cousins would say) previous ones. It was also the best-balanced touring choir (in terms of numbers and voice-parts) ever. But we were well used to “daft o’clock” – most of us had done it two days earlier, for the 5:00am Easter Vigil service at our own Cathedral, it being our turn one year out of three.
Most of the tour party met in the King’s Prep School yard for a 6:00am departure to Heathrow Airport and our first flight to Vancouver. Despite the large amount of luggage (including the three official Cathedral Choirs robe cases) we all managed to fit into the two KSR minibuses (unlike the last time, when a couple of cars had to be driven unexpectedly to LHR and left there for a couple of weeks at vast expense).
The early-morning M25, long queues for check-in and security, airport coffee shops for hasty breakfasts, followed by long flights, have become almost routine (a bit like the early Apollo moonshots in 1969-70, although – thank God – we haven’t yet had our “Apollo 13” experience to break up the monotony and shake us out of our complacency).
At Heathrow we met up with Alan Sheldon, a very last-minute addition to our Bass section from the choir of Worcester College, Oxford (where two of our other members sing as Choral Scholars, though they weren’t with us on this tour), and with our guest organist, David Coram, joining us for his first RCVC tour with his wife Alice and (a first for choir tours) their 8-month-old daughter Lydia (who was just coming along as a supporter – she hasn’t auditioned for the choir yet ).
We were flying with Air Canada (for no other reason but that they had the best fares available by the time we got around to booking), and our first stop was in Vancouver, British Columbia; here, though still on Canadian soil, we were able to clear US Customs and Immigration (but had to wait until one of our younger members caught up with us, he having been dragged off for interrogation and to have his tatty passport inspected more closely), which meant that on arrival in Seattle - after 45 minutes on a little turbo-prop “puddle-jumper” (during which time we had passed over Whidbey Island, which we would have to drive back to a little later) we could exit the airport as if from an internal flight. It was now 4:00pm in Seattle, but already midnight back home: an 8-hour time difference.
In the baggage hall at Seattle-Tacoma (“Sea-Tac”) Airport we met up with the 12th member of our soprano section, Dr Glenys (“Gig”) Goulstone, a long-standing friend from DHM’s old university choir. The tour party was now complete. As well as 20 regular members of RCVC we were also joined by our most regular German visitor, Heinz Schwartz (a veteran of every tour to date) our Tenor Choral Scholar, Sam Corkin, and a purple duck.
The rental of our five pre-booked 7-seater minivans went very smoothly, as it had in Boston in 2005 – unlike the 2002 tour to Atlanta and the Carolinas, when the rental clerk’s response to our travel agent’s vouchers was “Gee, sorry, I don’t got no vans!” (though he did find them eventually). We then had a couple of hours to drive, including a half-hour ferry ride across Puget Sound to Whidbey Island (unfortunately just missing the sunset), before arriving at our first destination, the Lutheran Church at Oak Harbor (note the spelling), members of whose congregation were to host us for the first two nights of the tour. By the time we had met hosts, eaten and eventually gone to bed, we had been awake for over 24 hours, and travelling for most of that time.
(♫ “The sun that bids us rest is waking our brethren ‘neath the eastern sky…” ♫)
On the first working morning of the tour, as we were due to meet for our first rehearsal, it seemed that several choir members had taken a leaf out of one soprano’s book, whose Facebook motto defines punctuality as “a virtue of the bored”. To be charitable, it was probably a case of huge American breakfasts taking up more time than was expected. After a couple of hours’ work, getting to grips with the next few days’ repertoire as well as working on balance, blend and ensemble with yet another different combination of singers and organist – but with the luxury of working with the same team for 10 days, a luxury we never have at home - we all went in search of lunch, and the afternoon was spent exploring the local area.
OHLC was not an easy building to sing in, due to the amount of carpeting and soft furnishings soaking up the acoustic. Nor was the organ the most thrilling we had ever worked with (one got the impression they probably didn’t use it very much). But we were glad to be there, and very appreciative of the efforts they had made to prepare for our visit at fairly short notice (we were their second touring choir in a short space of time, and this was a late addition to our schedule), not least because this saved us two nights’ hotel expenses. “English Cathedral Evensong” is not something they had had before, but they turned out in large numbers and were very appreciative, and generous in their financial offerings. It being the 7th Evening of the month, Psalm 37 was on the menu again, as it had been last summer at Himmerod Abbey; not the shortest one in the book by any means, but a good story: basically, it’s a Parable of the Good Guys and the Bad Guys, detailing the advantages of being amongst the former, and the fates awaiting the latter. The music list was a fairly “easy ride” for our first night, with Brewer in D and two pieces of William Harris. Following our usual tour format of Evensong + Concert, the short interval was followed by a selection of Byrd, Tallis, Archer, Blair, Howells, Lauridsen, and our own Ashfield and Whitlock. The portion of Tallis’ Lamentations which we sang includes a short section about one of our younger sopranos.
The following morning saw us heading for the northern suburbs of Seattle itself, where hosting for the next two nights was to be shared between the Episcopal parishes of St Andrew (Thursday night’s venue) and The Ascension (Friday’s), both situated in pleasant residential areas. But rather than taking the more direct route to Seattle via the ferry, we headed north and then east, in order to pass through Skagit County and see the Tulip Festival – acres upon acres of fields full of them, as far as the eye could see, with more variety than Joseph’s Technicolour Dreamcoat (we having first ensured that our rehearsal could be re-scheduled for the afternoon instead of the morning).
At St Andrew’s we encountered the first of two organs by the Bond company of Portland, Oregon – a fair-sized 2-manual in a French style. The music for this day was (deliberately) almost a repeat of the previous day’s (the idea being to try to get one day ahead of ourselves in terms of learning the repertoire), though with the substitution of some Mundy, Tomkins, and Ireland’s “Hey, Jude” Te Deum.
We never cease to be amazed by the facilities to be found in American churches: professional kitchens, meeting rooms, classrooms, offices, lecture halls, etc, and this one was no exception. Most churches where we sing also feed us, and St Andrew’s had a chef in the choir; local salmon was the highlight of the menu.
At Ascension the following morning we encountered the first of two organs by the Tacoma-based Paul Fritts (something of a legend in these parts, and further afield) – a substantial 2-manual in uncompromisingly Classical style.
As usual, the morning rehearsal was followed by an afternoon free for exploring. One van driver preferred to use public transport, but unfortunately forgot about the 2-hour on-street parking limit outside the church, resulting in an expensive ticket. The van keys were also temporarily mislaid, meaning that the offending van could not be moved for some time. Oops!
Some more exciting and challenging music was on the menu for this evening, including the tour’s first performances of Bryan Kelly’s “Jamaican Canticles” and “He is the Way”, and Barry Ferguson’s Death and Darkness”. The trebles explored the stratospheric lines of Taverner’s “Dum transisset sabbatum” and four young soloists excelled themselves in Greene’s “Lord, let me know mine end”.
Saturday morning saw us once again heading for the Seattle waterfront and the ferry across Puget Sound to another island – Bainbridge this time – and the Episcopal Church of St Barnabas in an idyllic wooded setting a mile out of town. D & RHM had discovered this little gem last summer while researching this trip and had been warmly welcomed by the Office Manager, Jim Gallaher, who told us that not only had he been to Rochester while visiting relatives in England, but he had also been to our Cathedral and heard this choir! Co-incidence? I don’t believe in it. St Barnabas quickly became, and remains, a very special place for all of us, though it was only intended to be a brief “one-night-stand” with a Saturday evening concert (no Evensong) and a Sunday morning Eucharist. Another parish with chefs in the congregation, they fed us magnificently both before the concert and after the Eucharist. The concert, which saw the first of three fine performances of Stanford in G, and of a Gibbons verse-anthem with lots of solos, was a sell-out with extra seats being brought in - they had done a great job of advertising. Bainbridge Island is not a poor community: several of the locals have sold their Microsoft stock and retired early as zillionaires. One family hosted seven (yes, seven) of our girls in one of the houses on their waterside country estate. But these people take their Gospel seriously and they practice what they preach (“from them to whom much is given shall much be required”): cheques with three zeros before the decimal point are not unusual in the offertory plate.
St Barnabas houses another organ by the Bond Organ Company – this one almost new – which suited our repertoire admirably, even though relatively small.
As we left after lunch on the Sunday, having made many new friends, and now heading for an evening performance in Tacoma, they all said (as Americans always do) “Y’all come back and see us again real soon!” Little did they know then what was in store for both us and them a few days later. [“Be careful what you wish for!”]
Rather than heading back via the ferry to Seattle and then Interstate-5, we took a more interesting route, initially heading NW towards the Norwegian-themed town of Poulsbo (which some of us had visited on the previous afternoon, before our Bainbridge Island concert) and then south, past the US Naval Dockyard at Bremerton, and over the (in)famous Tacoma Narrows Bridge – a previous incarnation of which collapsed just a few months after its completion in 1940, having gained itself the nickname of “Galloping Gertie” due to what is now known as “Aeroelastic Flutter” (not unlike the Millennium Bridge in London, except that was due to “Synchronous Lateral Excitation”). Our destination in Tacoma was the non-denominational Kilworth Memorial Chapel on the campus of the University of Puget Sound, with another of Paul Fritts’ organs – this one larger than before, and slightly better suited to our kind of repertoire.
A relatively small congregation/audience was nonetheless very appreciative of our Evensong and Concert, the music list for which was almost a repeat of the previous evening’s – deliberately so, as we weren’t sure how much rehearsal time would be available after our journey from Bainbridge Island.
After a very enjoyable supper in the large hall beneath the chapel, we made tracks for the LaQuinta Inn & Suites; hosting wasn’t possible at this venue, since there are so few families on the campus. Grateful though we always are to the host families who look after us so generously, it’s also good occasionally to have a change of scene and a bit of time and space to ourselves.
The next day (Monday) was totally free after five days of almost non-stop singing. After breakfast we bade farewell to Gig Goulstone, who had to leave us and return to work in California. By common consent the rest of us made our way eastwards towards Mt Rainier National Park (and remember that Rainier – with the accent on the last syllable – rhymes with, as well as being a brand of, beer).
We wanted to have lunch at Paradise, but Paradise was closed (too much snow!). The children frolicked in the snowdrifts, and much fun was had by all.
A great day out, with much letting down of hair, at the end of which we made our way back to the Tacoma suburb of Lakewood (home to a couple of large US Air Force bases) and the Episcopal Church of St Mary (internet address: holymotheroflakewood.org – which will give some idea of their churchmanship), where our hosts for the next two nights awaited us.
Tuesday’s schedule included the usual morning rehearsal, free afternoon and Evensong + Concert at the end of the day. A “music packing malfunction” meant that the programme had to be re-written (fortunately they hadn’t printed it yet); Howells “Collegium Regale” canticles were replaced by another repeat of Stanford in G (though Coll. Reg. did appear at one of our later unscheduled stops). The organ here was a substantial (but not very nice-sounding) electronic, with the console at the back of the church and the choir singing in the sanctuary; fortunately the distance caused no ensemble problems (well done, David!). The free afternoon was spent in different ways. Our organist and a few others visited Paul Fritts’ organ workshop in Tacoma, where we paid homage to a master craftsman and saw many wondrous things (not the least of which was a vintage Jaguar sports car, lovingly restored to showroom condition). Others made their way to the waterside town of Gig Harbor (but without Gig, now back in SoCal) for a leisurely afternoon of sightseeing.
Wednesday was to be the Grand Finale to our tour (or so we thought) with an Evensong at St Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle (Diocesan seat of the Bishop of Olympia), accompanied by its huge 4-manual organ by the Dutch firm of Flentrop. Evensong on Wednesdays is normally sung by a visiting choir - usually a parish choir from the Diocese - and we were part of this scheme. On arrival we were met by the Director of Music (who already had the coffee brewing for us at the back of the Nave) and his Assistant (who was to act as Officiant for Evensong, since none of the clergy would be present). Behind-the-scenes negotiations had ensured that our own tour organist would play all of the service (their tradition being that, as part of their hospitality, one of the resident organists plays at least part of it). The choir sings from the west-end organ gallery (there being no choir stalls elsewhere) with the Officiant at the east end.
The afternoon was spent exploring, once again, the delights of Downtown Seattle. Some of the teenagers (temporarily set free from close adult supervision) only made it back in time by the skin of their teeth, having had an exciting “bus adventure”.
Evensong was deemed by the resident Cathedral musicians to be one of the best they had had in years, a compliment we very much appreciated. It had certainly gone well, and we had had a lot of fun (are we allowed to have fun in worship?) with exuberant performances of Barry Ferguson’s “Death and darkness” (the horizontal en chamade trumpets substituting for the Rochester Tuba), Bryan Kelly’s rumba-style Jamaican Canticles, and Hugh Blair’s almost unknown setting (until we discovered it last year) of the familiar Easter text “Ye Choirs of New Jerusalem” (much better known in settings by Stanford and Richard Shephard).
They fed us Chinese food, many appreciative Thank-Yous and Goodbyes were said, and we headed back to I-5 and the LaQuinta at Sea-Tac Airport for what we thought was to be our last night here before flying home early the next morning.
Stranded in Seattle
We were rudely awakened at dawn on Thursday 15th by news that a volcano had erupted in Iceland, spewing clouds of ash into the atmosphere and towards Europe; UK airspace was closed because this ash was potentially fatal to jet engines, and our flight home was cancelled – at least the London-bound part of it was, so there was no point taking our first connecting flight as far as Calgary. The first news from Air Canada was that we had been re-booked on a flight the following Wednesday (6 days hence). Yeah, right! However, they called back a short while later to say this had been advanced to Monday, and then updated that to Saturday, but this time flying via Calgary and an overnight stop in Edmonton (which would have to be at our own expense since the volcanic event was beyond the airline’s control), eventually arriving in London on Monday. Obviously this came as a massive blow to everybody: people had to get back to school, university and jobs. Important exams would be missed. A crisis meeting was hastily called in the hotel lobby to discuss possible options. If we have to wait an extra couple of days, then where? Stay at the airport hotel? Find a hotel downtown where there is more to do? A consensus emerged that we should try to re-visit some of our previous parish hosts in order to save money (hotels cost about $1,000 a night for the whole choir), but which ones? Oak Harbor was too far away; St Andrew’s/Ascension might be complicated; Lakewood might find it difficult. Sometimes “gut-feelings” are useful, and there seemed to be only one obvious answer. A phone call was made to Fr Dennis on Bainbridge Island: “You remember you said we should all come back and see you again real soon….?” He didn’t bat an eyelid: “Come on back!” was the unhesitating response. Our van drivers traded in their five 7-seaters for three larger vehicles to save money, and we checked out of the hotel and headed back uptown to the ferry dock. By the time we arrived back at St Barnabas a couple of hours later they had beds arranged for us again (mostly with the same hosts who had looked after us a few days previously) and the church kitchen was opened up. The response from one of their chefs on hearing the news of our return was “I’m going to the grocery store!”
The rest of the unexpectedly free day was spent with more relaxing, sight-seeing, and a major shopping expedition (mostly for groceries as we would be eating communally with our hosts in the parish hall). Planning much further ahead was obviously not going to be easy.
The following day, as a thank-offering, we sang Evensong for them (shucks – we just missed the 15th Evening by a day!). Before that, however, the greater part of the day was spent taking advantage of the unexpected opportunity to relax and explore some more of this wonderful land; one party visited some extensive gardens, and another van-load drove to Hurricane Ridge on the Olympic Peninsula for some more jaw-dropping snow-covered scenery.
On Saturday we were once again up at even worse than daft o’clock, as we had decided to drive overland via Tacoma rather than taking the ferry to Seattle (which would have meant leaving in the middle of the night). On arrival at the airport a problem arose over our tickets (which were electronic rather than paper), and some dispute between different departments of Air Canada, and the United Airlines agents acting on their behalf, as to whether they should have been re-issued for our new itinerary (theoretically their problem, not ours, though it was threatening to become ours as well). Also two people (including the baby!) were missing from the new passenger list, there was now no guarantee that we would get any further than Edmonton, and check-in staff were questioning whether we should be taking this flight at all. We took the view that, according to the last information we had from Air Canada, we were flying to Calgary and then Edmonton, and we made the point (strongly but politely) that if they hadn’t wanted us to travel today, they should have told us. By now time was running out, the flight was in danger of closing without us and the group hadn’t even started checking in yet. Our leader was called by the supervisor into the back office, where there was a “full and frank exchange of views” on the telephone with more senior staff elsewhere, the result of which was that the check-in staff started processing us in record time and rushing new paper tickets out to the departure gate.
One soprano, however, decided to leave the party at this point and took a bus to visit relatives on Vancouver Island until the volcanic ash situation stabilised (we were very glad to see her eventually make it home – even though it was a whole week after the rest of us). Another little puddle-jumper took us on the short flight to Calgary, where yet more paper tickets were re-issued to get us onwards to Edmonton – by which time it was clear that our stay in that city was likely to be somewhat longer than the one night we had anticipated. Arriving in Edmonton, and discovering that the airport was some 20+ miles out of town, a decision had to be made: to stay in an airport hotel with nothing to do there, or to go downtown; we went for the latter option and commandeered a fleet of taxis to take us there, there being no public transport.
Exiled in Edmonton
Since the potential length of our stay here was unknown, we had to start thinking about alternatives to hotels (or pay $1,000 a night). Hopefully we could make contact with a local church? But we figured that in a State Capital in one of our former colonies there might well also be an Anglican Cathedral, and – thanks to the wonders of Google – we discovered that there was. We found its website and contact details, and phone calls were made – but of course the offices were closed (it was a weekend, after all), and everything went to voicemail. There was not even an out-of-hours “pastoral emergency” number. But a bit more detective work elicited the name of the Music Director, and the local phone book listed a residential number for someone of the same name, so we took a risk and called it. Voicemail again. But a message was left: was this the Cathedral DoM? An English cathedral choir was temporarily stranded in his town; could we do anything for him and his people (e.g. sing for some supper)? Could he/they do anything for us (e.g. find us some lodgings)? He phoned back early the next morning with the answers: Yes, Yes and Yes. And would we like to join his choir for the 11:00am Eucharist (rehearsal at 10:00am)? Now, different people’s minds work in different ways; to our own Director any answer other than “Wow, yes, of course – thanks very much!” would have been unimaginable, particularly bearing in mind the circumstances; the idea of a democratic vote at that time certainly didn’t occur. (Maybe it should have? Point for future discussion.) Unfortunately not everybody appreciated the unexpected wake-up call and the message that we were about to sing again – but that was OK: in such a stressful situation, adults need to be allowed to make some decisions for themselves. We all went to the Cathedral, and most of us sang: Darke in E, Elgar’s Ave verum, Wood’s O thou the central orb (last-minute addition to the list, especially for us) and a motet (new to all of us Brits) by Healey Willan who, though British-born, spent most of his working life in Canada. Notice had already been given of our predicament at an earlier service, and repeated at this one, and by the end of the “coffee hour” after the Eucharist, more than enough beds were offered for all those that wanted them. A small number chose to stay in the hotel at their own expense, and that also was OK. One of the Edmonton choir ladies arranged a BBQ in her garden later that afternoon for all of us and those who were to be our hosts, so we made our own arrangements for lunch in the city and met up again later.
It must be noted that the sub-title of this report – “Exiled in Edmonton” – implies no disrespect nor lack of gratitude whatsoever to the good people of All Saints’ Episcopal Cathedral, who were incredibly generous hosts in all sorts of ways and – like the people of St Barnabas on Bainbridge Island also – they put into practice the Gospel of Christian Hospitality. We were “exiled” in the sense that we had been dumped there unwillingly – seemingly abandoned – in a country where we hadn’t planned to be, didn’t want to be, and had no idea how long we would be. Some people were definitely feeling like the writer of Psalm 137: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
However, after some discussion following the BBQ, it was agreed that, as a Thank-You to our hosts and to the Cathedral community in general, we would sing Evensong for them the next day, since we obviously weren’t going home that soon.
Monday morning we all met up again at the Cathedral, where two unoccupied offices were put at our disposal, with their computers and phones, to use as an emergency HQ for as long as necessary. The local press were made aware of our predicament, and CBC TV (Canadian equivalent of the BBC) also got wind of it. Both turned up with cameras for our rehearsal and Evensong, with some of our members being interviewed beforehand. Thanks to the resident Cathedral Choir’s library, we were able to do Howells’ “Collegium Regale” setting (which we should have done at Lakewood the previous Tuesday) together with “Death and Darkness” and “He is the way”; the latter two pieces received remarkably fine performances on almost no rehearsal, despite the slightly gloomy mood – a mark of the calibre of this choir.
Earlier in the day some of the younger members amused themselves at the world’s largest shopping mall, which also boasts an indoor water theme park. Meanwhile our “Parade Marshal” had been in touch with the British Consulate in Vancouver to apprise them of our situation, since HM Government was compiling lists of British citizens stranded abroad and making plans to evacuate them (there was talk of the Royal Navy picking people up and taking them to Spain for onward overland travel back to UK). There were questions about the possibility of military flights, since UK forces regularly fly to and from training grounds in this part of Canada, and even a suggestion from the folks back at Lakewood that the US Air Force base in their parish might be able to organise something…
Tuesday morning saw the angelic faces of some Decani sopranos featured on the front page of the Edmonton Journal (mouths wide open – well done!), and later that evening we were apparently the 2nd top story on the national TV news. As a result of the local press coverage the Cathedral office received a phone call from a lady – not a member of its congregation – who had read about our plight and wanted to arrange a barbeque lunch for us the following day (if we were still there). She was originally English, had been a pupil at Rochester Grammar School, and her best friend had been Rosemary Clemence’s bridesmaid. What a small world!
Tuesday afternoon saw gathering impatience and frustration: our Transport Minister, Lord Adonis, had announced that UK airspace would re-open at 10:00pm London time (3:00pm in Edmonton). Most airlines were waiting for that deadline to pass before letting their flights to Europe take off. Meanwhile, a British Airways flight from Vancouver, and several others from the US, landed in London at around 10:00pm, having taken off several hours earlier. BA’s boss, Willie Walsh, either knew something we didn’t, or he had taken a huge gamble in order to force the UK authorities into action. Air Canada, on the other hand, had an airplane sitting on the ground in Edmonton which could have taken us home that night, but they resolutely refused to change its status from “cancelled” to “scheduled”. At this point (let it not be forgotten) we were actually booked to fly home on May Day – another TEN days hence. Thanks to the good folks at CBC, we obtained contact details for AC’s media relations people (normally only available to the press, not to mere mortals like us) and made our feelings very clear in e-mails and voicemail messages (they weren’t answering their phones – surprise, surprise!).
The next day, having ascertained that we still weren’t going to be flying home that night, we accepted Jean Sult’s kind invitation to a BBQ lunch; she also graciously allowed the media to invade her back garden to get more radio and TV interviews with herself and various members of our party. The teenagers arrived eventually (after most of the food had gone), having had another exciting “bus adventure” en route.
And a glimmer of light appeared at the end of the tunnel: an executive from Air Canada made contact, having been assigned to our case; he seemed to be reasonably senior and to have some clout. Maybe – just maybe – our messages the previous day, warning of a potential PR disaster, possibly pressure from the Consulate, and reactions to the media attention we were getting, had had the desired effect. And about time, too.
Thursday saw the dam break, suddenly and unexpectedly. We had all been invited to the regular community lunch held in the Cathedral’s foyer. But just as we were gathering for that, all of a sudden our e-mail inbox started filling up with confirmations of flights home TODAY for half the choir, a few more tomorrow and the rest on Saturday. The end was in sight! The problem was that they seemed to be completely random groupings over which we had no control – for example, DHM was to travel today, leaving half the group behind, leaderless; when we queried this with Air Canada we were told that if they tried to do swaps on the computer, the seat availability would probably disappear in the split second it would take to replace one name with another. There was only one possibility: those trying to arrange swaps would both have to turn up at the airport this afternoon with their passports and bags, ready to fly. If check-in staff were able to arrange the swap at that point, well and good. Well, we did, and it worked. Somebody went home earlier than expected, and DHM was able to stay to the end with the rest of the party. The check-in staff were really helpful, and we made sure that information was passed on to their superiors.
Later that evening, a number of those remaining were entertained to a magnificent steak dinner by the Tour Treasurer to celebrate an impending birthday (a special one with a nought on the end of it) and imminent retirement. But we were becoming very concerned at Heinz’ state of health, as he seemed to be having great trouble breathing – partially due, no doubt, to a sudden and dramatic change in the weather that evening from very hot to near freezing. Early the following morning we awoke to the news that Heinz had in fact been hospitalized overnight by his host, who was an ICU nurse. Fortunately, by midday on Friday he was well enough again to be discharged.
Later on the Friday, another half-dozen people flew out of Edmonton, heading for home. There had still been an outside chance that, if further seats became available, more of us might also get away that day, but when asked for their views on that possibility, the four youngest girls - who had all been billeted with the young (female) Cathedral Curate - declined; they had plans for a major outing! So all of us who were left could prepare for a confirmed final exit on Saturday.
Because we had to make two en-route connections – via Calgary and Toronto, another “daft o’clock” start was necessary on the Saturday morning. It was still dark when we left the hire car at the airport rental lot and took the shuttle bus to the terminal. We had one more swap to try to arrange: Heinz was scheduled to fly alone on a non-stop flight later in the day, but that was impossible: he was now in a wheelchair and needed assistance. David graciously agreed to exchange seats with Heinz so that he could fly with others, and the check-in staff again performed minor miracles above and beyond the call of duty in order to facilitate this.
And so the long and arduous homeward journey was finally completed; a King’s School minibus met us at Heathrow on the Sunday morning, as it had done two days earlier for the advance party, and we arrived back at Rochester in time for some of us to sing at the 10:30am Eucharist. We were still on adrenalin; jet-lag could come later.
What had started on Easter Tuesday as a great adventure turned into an even greater adventure for some, but a seemingly unending nightmare for others. And yet, once we were all safe home and had recovered from the stress and uncertainty of the last few days, it became clear (mostly through enthusiastic postings seen on Facebook) that this had been an outstanding tour in all sorts of ways, not just musically. One of the younger members even described the tour as her best holiday ever. (Holiday? Was I not working them hard enough? Must do better.) The choir had bonded terrifically well, many new friendships were made, and existing ones deepened; they had produced many memorable music moments, which received lots of deservedly enthusiastic compliments (it isn’t every day that a Cathedral Director of Music tells a visiting choir that their Evensong was one of the best he had heard in a long time). We can make jokes about us and the Americans being “two peoples divided by a common language”, and how they think 100 years is long time and we think 100 miles is long way; but one thing Americans and Canadians do brilliantly is hospitality: generously, unhesitatingly and unstintingly. In spades. Most of us had experienced it before, and knew what to expect, but we are still extremely grateful to the Rectors, Pastors, Music Directors and congregations in Oak Harbor, Seattle, Lakewood, Bainbridge Island and Edmonton who practiced what they preached and looked after us so well – even more so to the last two who went way above and beyond the call of duty when they were least expecting it.
Before leaving Bainbridge Island we had received an e-mail from the Rector of another parish, asking if they could please be included on the itinerary for our 2011 tour of Washington State! At that point there was no such tour - the thought of another one so soon had never even crossed our mind (the choir has only done four US tours in 15 years) – but as I write this report there are already tentative discussions about a possible return to Bainbridge Island for a longer residency in Summer 2011. So watch this space – but be prepared to do some serious fund-raising first.
My thanks again to everybody involved in the tour for what was truly an unforgettable experience: singers, organist, hangers-on, my “2i/c”s, Parade Marshal, Treasurer, Chaplain, “Choir Mums” and the duck.
In closing, I quote an e-mail just received from Fr Dennis:
“We are committed to have you all return next summer…. the parish would simply love to see you all again as we still talk about that amazing week.”