The Chairman's impressions of his first Choir tour

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Lisbon has many liminal qualities, but the hills which surround it are particularly important. They have long provided protection from the worst of the Atlantic storms, defence in times of trouble and a juxtaposition to the valleys which allows a remarkable diversity of agricultural land and practice. But perhaps most significantly, they dam the mighty Tagus into a tidal lagoon, thus providing ample fishing and harbour facilities before the river spills through its broad and deep channel to the open ocean. Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers, Phoenician traders, Roman troops, Moorish rulers, Christian crusaders, twentieth-century dictators and more modern democrats.; all have made Lisbon their home. But was the city ready for the onslaught that is Chester Music Society Choir?
Our plane banks sharply to pick up the prevailing wind which once blew the caravels, naos and carracks into Lisbon as they returned from their great voyages of discovery and trade. Like them, we pass the Belem Tower that once guarded the outer harbours and the fleets at anchor, but those then aboard would have been utterly stunned by the great April 25th Bridge over the Tagus Channel and the towering statue of Christ the Redeemer on the southern shore, which echoes that in Rio de Janeiro. Once more on terra firma, suitcases unpacked, and the vagaries of the metro system tackled (if not mastered!) it was time to begin to explore the city.
So much to offer: Districts of great variety; the statement of imperial power that is the Praca do Comercio; the waterfront, the tumbling confusion of the ancient Alfama area with its great survivals of Sao Jorge castle and the cathedral of the Se; the sophistication of Barrio Alto and the university quarter, the early town planning necessitated by the devastating earthquake, fire and tsunami which struck in 1755; the clattering vintage trams; the exquisite treasures of the Gulbenkian Museum; the royal pleasure grounds at Sintra; the melancholy delights of Fado music; and the unexpected vistas from the belvederes over this most beguiling of cities made even more beautiful by the burgeoning blossoms of the jacaranda trees. But be warned, Lisbon can be heavy on the feet. At which point avail yourself of one of the most wonderful pick-me-ups known to international cuisine: coffee and pastel de nata. This brings together ingredients from the Americas, Africa, the East Indies and Lisbon’s own hinterland in one of the greatest historical confections ever to pleasure the taste buds.
The pastel was supposedly invented in Belem at the mouth of the Tagus. If so, it was the perfect place to be inventive with the cargoes from the unloading ships. Belem is also home to many of Portugal’s finest museums. Not the least of these is the Belem Monastery which houses the maritime museum and whose church is now a mausoleum to the heroes of Portugal’s’ heroic age of seaborne exploration. I defy any student of the Voyages of Discovery not to feel a frisson of historical excitement as you stand beside the tombs of Prince Henry the Navigator and Vasco da Gama.
Lest you think that this trip was devoted solely to hedonistic enjoyment, let us now turn to its real purpose: the making of music together from a programme of choral works by Parry, Gounod and Handel. Our first concert was in Leiria Cathedral some three hours to the north of Lisbon by motorway. En route we visit Obidos, a wonderfully preserved medieval town. The circuit of its parapets is polished smooth by the passage of myriad feet and provides a real challenge to those with less than appropriate footwear. However, jangled nerves are soon settled by the town’s speciality: bitter cherry liqueur served in a chocolate cup. You will never spend a better Euro!
Onwards to the great monastery of Batalha, built to commemorate an unlikely victory against the odds fighting the Castilians in 1385. It is a wonderful combination of architectural styles from the clean lines of High Gothic through the explosion of Manueline extravagance to the new style which was abruptly abandoned as Portugal’s imperial star began to decline by the late Sixteenth Century. It also serves as the national memorial to the three Portuguese divisions who fought with the Allies on the Western Front in World War 1, performing with great heroism in the fighting in 1918 which ultimately led to victory. This was a proud contribution which I suspect few are even aware of outside of Portugal.
Now, every choir sings on its stomach so we head off to a local restaurant for a pre-concert dinner. And what a dinner! Local specialities of bacalao (dried cod) and roast suckling pig washed down with copious amounts of the local wine, and as long as we keep eating and drinking, our generous hosts keep serving. By this time, our esteemed Musical Director is becoming concerned that his choir might not be able to stand up, let alone deliver a performance. But we are made of determined stuff and are ready to go on stage at 10pm on an unseasonably cold and wet evening.
The concert is shared by a local ladies’ choir who specialise in singing a capella. They are superb, their work characterised by tight and accurate harmonies, wonderful clarity of tone and supremely well-balanced. Follow that! Girding up our vocal loins, we rise to the occasion and earn a standing ovation, the cold night made balmy by the warmth of our hosts’ reception. The journey back to Lisbon takes us into the wee small hours. Many gently sleep, well fed and watered and happy with a job well done; others talk softly together to find unexpected connections. Thus are friendships forged and cemented.
Our second concert is in the huge church of Sao Vicente de Fora. The acoustic is intimidating and made worse in that Graham Eccles, our brilliant accompanist, is perched at the organ like an eagle in some far away aerie. From his position the sight lines to our MD are extremely challenging with the acoustic echo creating delay between the organ and the choir, and then the choir and the audience. It proves to be a challenging singing experience and we come away not entirely pleased with the way things had gone. However, the audience seemed pleased with it, and that is always the main thing.
The final concert is in the Basilico dos Matires and matters do not begin well. We find that, contrary to previous promises, we are not allowed to use the church organ. It is often the case that church authorities in Portugal guard their precious ancient instruments like a tigress protecting her young. However, Graham Eccles, with his inimitable professionalism, assures us that he can use the keyboard which is made available to us without too much difficulty and away we go to deliver our best concert of the tour. Singing with the church doors open to the street, many people come in to listen and we are received with another standing ovation of great enthusiasm, Handel’s Zadok the Priest proving to be particularly popular. Over the three concerts we attract audiences in excess of 750 and feel confident that the musical reputation of our home city has been enhanced.
And then time to return to hedonism as we come together for the farewell Tour Dinner. The food is once again superb and the wine flows free. Final speeches are given, one from some clown standing on a table, and the whole is rounded off by some cleverly crafted written contributions and impromptu singing. A thoroughly memorable event.
This was a truly wonderful tour made possible by the outstanding efforts of Tour Manager Sue Eales and her ever-capable assistants Joan Abbatt, Scirard Lancelyn-Green and John Dearnley. As ever, our Musical Director, Graham Jordan Ellis led us with the skill, dignity, good humour and wit which typify all that he does, and Graham Eccles was simply superb throughout. But special mention must go to Marisa Clemente who did so much to bring a personal touch to this magnificent trip. The radiance of her smile is a metaphor for the hospitality and generosity of her fellow countrymen and women. On behalf of us all Marisa, thank you so much.