Island choristers tour Great Britain

By Mary-Jean Miner - May 25, 2006

With one foot in one hemisphere and one foot in another Peter Boak leads a line of choir members straddling the Meridian line in Greenwich, England. Photos by Harvey Beth

In mid-April, many thousands gather in Boston to run the 26-mile marathon. The day of that event, 35 people, members and friends of Edgartown's Federated Church choir, ran a marathon of their own in Heathrow Airport in London, completing the first leg of a journey that took them to Scotland and Wales and England, where they performed in local churches and cathedrals. Under the direction of Peter Boak, the choir had been planning the trip for two years. Singers from the choir and Island Community Chorus left Boston on April 17 and, during the following 10 days, became an efficient traveling unit, and the tour was a great success.

Of course, there were several unscheduled events, including the disappearance of Judy Crawford's suitcase, which apparently chose to stay in Woods Hole for the duration. Insult was added to injury when her husband Tad's took a detour in Scotland. Judy's colorful cardigan, worn daily, provided many comments and, by the end of the trip, she and Tad burst into uncontrollable laughter when unsuspecting Brits complimented her garb.

Peter assigned the writing of the trip's journal to a different person each day, and many of their comments will be recorded here.

Stonehenge visitors (from left) Nancy Blank, Herb Ward, Kris Hauck, Pam Butterick, Ellie Beth, and Phil Fleischmann.

After landing in Scotland on what became the second day, we were met by Graeme and Valerie, who would be our driver and tour guide. Our travel agency had great good taste in hiring these two, who worked as a team and kept the group informed as to the complicated and varied histories of British royalty, including the many bloody years that led to this day and age. The trip featured tours of several palaces, castles, cathedrals, and villages, and Valerie's comments augmented the many scenic vistas of Scottish, Welsh, and English countryside. Sheep dotted the hills, with the new spring lambs gamboling about. Graeme stopped often for photo opportunities, and all the cameras came out for the two bridges on the Firth of Forth, two of Edinburgh's most visible landmarks, which loomed into view from several different vantage points.

We lamented the fact that we did not have a cartoonist among our group, as an illustration of the vagaries of British plumbing would surely be an addition to the story. However, we soldiered on, with no more that two nights spent at any given location; unusual showers soon gave way to toilets that needed six or eight flushes to prime the water action.

A concert at Caernarfon, Wales.

Several members of the group were traveling abroad for the very first time. Our accompanist and the baby of the group, Jordan Winderl, and our youngest singer, Kris Hauck, inaugurated their experience on the very first evening by climbing Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh. This huge hill, in the middle of the city, presents a challenge even by day. Jordan and Kris tackled it in the dark, missing the trails on the way up, but finding them very useful on the way down.

A small group including Pam and Jim Butterick, walked the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, stopping at the Scottish Museum. "The Morningside Church was quite large and beautiful. After a very quick warm-up, we took part in what was, to me, a dream come true," Pam wrote.

Hearing our soloists and choir for the very first time in a new location was an outstanding experience. Morningside presented the challenge of watching the director, instead of listening to the organ. With marvelous acoustics, the church presented an echo effect, so it was necessary to keep an eye on Peter to be certain we were following his beat. Each of our concerts built toward the next one. By the next venue, which was a small stone church built into the castle walls in Caernarfon, Wales, the singers were astounded at the difference those stone walls made. Many felt that this was the high point of the tour, as the male chorus of the village entertained everyone after the concert at the local yacht club, singing for us and providing an amazing selection of food. The Welsh hospitality was outstanding and many would like to return!

Choir director Peter Boak gives last-minute instructions at a rehearsal.

As journalist for a day, Phil Fleischmann wrote, "The little church has great acoustics. The softest tones carried through well. The audience was very enthusiastic and our choir was better for it."

In our concert programs, Glenn Carpenter wrote that the main inspiration for our visit was to return a concert to the village of Bury St. Edmunds, whose Cathedral Choir visited in Edgartown several years ago. At each stop, members of the choir entertained friends and relatives who often traveled several hours to hear the concerts and meet us. Cousins, second cousins, little-known relatives, and long-time friends appeared at Chester, Edinburgh, Lincoln, Salisbury, and London. And many of the folk who had stayed with Federated members during the St. Edmundsbury tour came to reunite with their hosts. Two of the former members of the boys' choir (now 17 years old!) came to the hotel with their parents. Josef, who had been one of the "babies" then, just finished up as the student head of the choir. Now there are all sorts of new young singers and Josef will go on to become an organist. It was wonderful to renew that connection.

Since Bury St. Edmunds was the village from which Bartholomew Gosnold set sail to America, we were particularly interested in a new sculpture on the cathedral grounds. Depicting his ship, "Goodspeed," it was dedicated soon after the choir's trip to America. Margaret Chirgwin wrote, "James Thomas, music director and one of our former guests, made us welcome and assisted Jordan in her lofty perch high above the choir stalls....her experience of climbing the sheer cliff of Arthur's Seat...prepared her for the scaling of the circular staircase to the organ."

Again, the choir was entertained at a reception, this time at the Precenter's home, just a short walk from the cathedral. We carried greetings from Edgartown people to their guests, and back again.

Several days were given over to touring London, a new experience for many of us. A side trip to Salisbury, where our final concert took place in the cathedral there, was another high point. As Peter pointed out, the whole of St. Edmundsbury would fit in the small section of the massive building where we sang. At the end of each piece, Peter held the applause so we could hear the reverberation. It was an amazing experience!

Lee Fierro, the Salisbury journalist, wrote, "We are so small in that immense place, but we're told afterwards that our voices carried well. What we heard back was an echo! An echo! Awesome...(there was much) gratitude for the whole experience, for the 'family' we have felt."

Ray and Lorraine St. Pierre, who were traveling abroad for the first time, relished every minute of the trip. They were photographed at every venue, including the Lincoln Castle, where scenes from "The DaVinci Code" were filmed. "Our children and grandchildren will be so impressed!" said Lorraine, and Ray added, "We have not had a vacation in more than 20 years, and this more than made up for it!"

"I would love to hear Valerie tell another story or joke, one last beheading, royal infidelity, or cat story," wrote Herb Ward, the final recorder. "But now only the memory remains. Returning home is nice." We all felt so much richer for our shared journey, as Herb said, "an experience of a lifetime."

Mary-Jean Miner is a freelance writer who lives in Tisbury. She contributes occasional articles about classical music and art to The Times.