Friday morning was crisp and mostly clear - not quite so rainy as the past week has been. It looked as though the weather might be making a turn for the better. In any case, it was a perfect day for the Georgia Boy Choir to go see the pre-historic monument, Stonehenge. This 5,000 + year-old stone circle is located in the remarkably picturesque countryside of Wiltshire, England, about and hour-and-a-half's drive north of Oxford. It is quite a sight to behold. Standing there looking at those enormous stones - some weighing in at 50 to 60 tons, it difficult to imagine the gargantuan human effort it must have taken to haul them there and erect them in the absolutely perfect location. The boys were in awe.
Upon arriving back "home" in Oxford, it was back to what has now become a familiar routine for the boys: Rehearsal from 3:30 to 5:30, then Choral Evensong at 6:00. The music program for Friday's service contained some of their favorites - the Evening Service in C by Stanford, and the anthem was "Oh What Their Joy and Their Glory Must Be" by William Harris, who was Organist and Choirmaster there at Christ Church Cathedral in the early 20th century. How thrilling it was for the boys to sing this glorious music in the very church where the composer worked. It was equally thrilling for those fortunate enough to be able to hear it.
Saturday, saw continued improvement in the weather, which was particularly fortunate as the morning's activity was to be held outside. Following breakfast in the Great Hall, the boys strolled up High Street toward the Magdalen Bridge to engage in a storied Oxford tradition: Punting. Punting has nothing to do with football, but is a boating activity. The dictionary could describe a punt as, "A small, rudderless watercraft designed to make those not from Oxford or Cambridge look silly and incapable." Each boat contains four passengers, plus one, "punter." The punter stands on the back of the boat and tries to push the boat more or less in a straight line, with the use of a 12-foot aluminum pole, while the four passengers amuse themselves by laughing at his efforts. This activity was great fun, and only two punters fell in the water. In an effort to preserve their dignity, we will not tell you who it was, but both of them have a last name which begins with, "J-O-N" and ends with, "E-S."
Following this bit of fun, the boys were eager to spend a couple of hours and plenty of money buying souvenirs in the town. Before dispersing, though, they sang a couple of songs on the crowded sidewalk. In no time, a sizable audience had gathered, and the boys handed out some flyers advertising the evening's concert with the Oxford Girls Choir. The boys were very much looking forward to the concert, they first had a bit of work to do, so after a short rest, it was off to rehearsal before the Evensong Service. The Canticles were the Evening Service in D by Hugo Dyson (who was part of C.S. Lewis' and J. R. R. Tolkien's circle of friends known as The Inklings), which is one of the Choir's favorites. The glory of the final, "Amen" was hair-raising in its beauty and excitement. The anthem was Stanford's sublime a capella motet, "Beati Quorum Via." The Choir performed this gem with unusual sensitivity and grace.
After the service, they filed over to the nearby Oriel College, where the Concert with the Oxford Girls Choir was to be held in the chapel. When the boys entered the chapel, the girls were rehearsing, and their sound was absolutely gorgeous. The concert was to begin in just a short time, so there was only a few minutes to get things sorted out as to who was standing where, etc. before audience members began to assemble. When the concert began, the Girls Choir went first and set a very high standard. They led off with an exciting Italian Baroque song with florid passages for two soloists. Our boys sat mesmerized. They continued with one beautiful song after another. The favorite, for most, was the elegant, "Flower Duet" from Leo Delibes' opera, Lakme. The soloists were excellent and some of the boys' hearts began to melt.
When it became time for the Georgia Boy Choir to take the stage, they knew that they had to perform their best. They opened with Gerald Finzi's ebullient, "My Spirit Sang All Day." It became immediately clear that these boys were not fooling around. All through their set of songs, they sang with an even higher-than-usual level of musicality. Their intonation was good, their ensemble was excellent, their louds were louder, and their quiet passages even softer than usual. It was thrilling and moving. Perhaps a good strategy moving forward would be to have a chorus of pretty girls sitting just a few feet away at every performance.
To conclude the concert, the Oxford Girls Choir joined the boys and together they sang the American Folk Hymn, "Down In the River to Pray." The combined sound was almost overwhelming. It was marvelous. After the concert, all the performers, boys and girls alike, walked down to the Christ Church Choir School for a Pizza Party. This was a big hit. One might expect that they boys and girls would congregate with their own kind, and stand around on the edges of the room. But no, they sat together, and talked and laughed together like old friends. It was delightful, and could probably have gone on well past midnight, but the boys needed to get to bed in order to be at their best for the two services they needed to sing the next day.
The Sunday morning service at Christ Church Cathedral is a full Choral Eucharist, which once again means that the Choir not only sings the hymns and an anthem, but also a full Mass - Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. For this, the Choir chose the Messe Basse by French composer, Gabriel Faure. The service was very well attended, and the church was nearly full. Afterward, many of the attendees had high praise for the Choir.
After just a short rest it was time to prepare for the Choir's final service in Oxford. For the final Evensong, the Choir chose to perform the incredible Collegium Regale Evening Service by Herbert Howells. This piece is not only stunning in its beauty and grandeur, but poses some technical challenges for the singers; but they handled these with seeming ease, and performed it magnificently. The final Gloria Patri and Amens were glorious. They concluded the service with the inspiring anthem, "O Thou, the Central Orb" by Sir Charles Wood. This too, is a song which, if sung well, can transport the listener to the very gates of heaven, and the Georgia Boy Choir sang it well indeed. It was a more-than-fitting finale to a wonderful week in Oxford.
At breakfast next morning, in honor of their achievements, and their final meal in the Great Hall, the Choir were invited to sit at the High Table at the front of the room - a rare, but well-deserved privilege.
Until next time,
The Georgia Boy Choir England Tour Team.