A diary from Oriel Choir Tour 2017. Featured image supplied by Matthew Hull.

Tuesday, 27 June

Far too early Wake up. Persuade myself that, yes, I did need to set the alarm this early. Lie in wait outside the bathroom so I can use the shower. There’s a queue – Lizzie kindly hosted several of us the night before, since she lives close to Heathrow and that seemed like a good enough excuse for a party. Will Pickering seems to be taking hours. When I get out, Will McDonald tells me I seemed to be taking hours.

Still far too early There’s bad traffic on the M25. Three different SatNav devices are giving us three different time estimate. Implausibly, we arrive on time at 8:15 and meet with the rest of the choir.

10:25am We’re off. I have a window seat – but it’s cloudy enough that the world below is completely hidden until we land. It’s a short flight; I spend the time reading various newspapers and listening to music. The battery on my noise-cancelling headphones has died.

1:25pm CET (12:25pm BST) We land in Milan. Giampiero Innocente, the local choir director who invited us here and organised the tour, introduces himself. He’s well-dressed, wears glasses, seems nice. We’re promptly bundled onto a coach to be transported to the nearby town of Lodi. Apparently, to our surprise, that’s where we’ll be staying (I ruminate that this is what happens if you fail to read an itinerary that’s been pushed at you for several months now).

C. 2pm Lodi. We arrive at the secondary school where we’ll be staying. Staff are quite literally waving WiFi passwords at us as we come through the doors: welcome, but slightly surreal. The rooms are nice – we each have our own bathroom and balcony.

4-7pm Collective fatigue has taken hold after the early get-up and flight, but it’s rehearsal time. There’s no other option – our first concert is the following day, and rehearsal time for our tour programme was limited in Trinity by the two-services-a-week choir schedule.

We sound terrible, and we all know it. I try to convince myself that we sounded this bad at the beginning of last tour. I’m not sure we did.

7pm Pizza and beer for all – welcome. A few of us head out for a walk to explore Lodi a little after supper, before heading back to the school and drinking obscenely cheap wine in the corridor with the others.

Wednesday, 28 June

7am A few of us who enjoy inflicting pain on ourselves set out early for a jog before it’s too hot to do so. The advantage of Lodi over Milan is that you quickly find yourselves in the countryside, and we discover an attractive 10K route through crop fields and along the river. Several of the fields contain wheat, which still feels slightly rebellious after General Election ‘17.

8:30am Breakfast. An incredible array of inedible items – rock-hard bread (sans butter); ‘juice’ cartons (with c. 50% juice); undrinkable lemon tea (which many make the mistake of putting milk in); something that professes to be ham. Luckily the coffee is good, and is served in a huge vat with a ladle.

10:30am-2:30pm Short rehearsal in Lodi, then a coach to Milan, followed by lunch, which is provided free of charge at the university in Milan (the venue for tonight’s concert). We get a short amount of free time, but not enough to do much with, so a few of us have a wander through Milan – we get within eyeshot of the Cathedral before having to turn back. Multiple sopranos are told how beautiful they are by a street vendor – unless they refuse to buy that bracelet, in which case they’re ugly, and, apparently, evil as well.

2:30pm Rehearsal in the university’s concert hall – our first rehearsal with the string players, which is exciting. We’re starting to sound half decent: a relief. A massive storm breaks outside during the rehearsal.

Our itineraries have ‘Drinks for all the people’ suggestively scheduled in between our rehearsal and the concert, but this time it turns out to be just pineapple juice. Probably for the best.

9pm Show time. Much stressing over clothes in the run-up beforehand. (One button undone, or two? Should Will McDonald wear trainers, or walk on in socks?) Will also forgot to buy himself a black shirt before coming, so has to dash out beforehand to buy one (sans coat, in the middle of the storm). He comes back dripping. Luckily, there’s time for him to dry himself off before the concert.

Much pomp as our first concert begins. Giampiero appears to be giving an extensive history of Oriel College in his introduction, lasting for 15 minutes or so – we pick out the name ‘Newman’ amongst the stream of Italian. Choir concerts usually seem to be, for me, an exercise in clinging onto a ridiculous amount of music for dear life. (I’ve checked on the YouTube videos since, and, yes, it does look like I’m about to drop my music at any moment.) Regardless, the concert goes pretty well – we’re still not sounding as good as we could, but there are several yet to come.

C. 11pm Coach back to Lodi. Much drinking. We discover there’s an Irish pub near the river called Bridge…

choir in front of bridge
Photo: Will Pickering. Left to right: Ellie Juckes (soprano); Alexander Walls (bass); Matthew Hull (bass); Will Pickering (bass); David Maw (director of music); Malcolm Kittle (alto); Alex Waygood (bass); William McDonald (junior organ scholar); Charlotte Anstey (soprano); Marcel Stolz (bass)

Thursday, 29 June

Itinerary: ‘Free day, free time’.

We divide into several groups: those too hungover to do anything; those who want to do proper sightseeing in Milan; and two groups who want to visit the lakes. I and a few others decide to head to the small town of Stresa, on the shores of Lake Maggiore, but take a slow route with a long pause in Milan to avoid high train fares. Happily, we discover on the train from Milan that our ticket is invalid, despite having selected the route from a list of options on a ticket machine in Lodi. Since no one in our group really speaks Italian, we decide it’s probably best to pay up rather than risk getting into a fight with the angry ticket inspector.

Stresa and Lake Maggiore are beautiful, but our timing is unfortunate to say the least: after a sunny train ride there, storm clouds emerge shortly after we disembark. We swim tentatively for a little while in the lake, but most of the rest of the afternoon is spent running between the lakeshore and the train station – the only place we can think of to find shelter. We end up having to picnic in the train station. Mamma mia.

Most of the choir meets in Milan for a meal in the evening, followed by a brisk walk back to the train station in a fruitless attempt to catch a train – except for Alexander Walls, who, being a little more drunk, runs a little more recklessly. We watch him being taken away back to Lodi, fingers pressed against the glass, helpless to help us.

Much drinking in Lodi when we eventually get back, this time on the roof – much more atmospheric.

Friday, 30 June

7am Another 10K morning run – but I’m hungover, so Matthew Hull has to drag me out, delaying us until 7:15. We have the morning free, so those of us who make it to breakfast resolve to Do Something rather than hang around in Lodi all day (our concert will be in Lodi this evening). We settle on going to Cremona – the only interesting town we can get back from in time for our rehearsal. A Telegraph article describes it as having ‘striking’ architecture.

Cremona. We arrive at Monteverdi’s birthplace. The train station isn’t particularly striking. In case we didn’t know it’s Monteverdi’s birthplace, there’s a sculpture of a violin just outside the train station that plays the opening of Orfeo on loop all day. (Bizarrely, the extract has no violins in it.)

The architecture does indeed, however, become ever-more striking as we approach the centre. We climb the clock tower – the largest of its kind in Europe, while its clock face is at 54 square metres also the largest in Europe. Rory unexpectedly gets to use his Japanese at the top; we need (obviously) to ask a tourist to take our picture. The view is staggering.

After descending, we decide to have a stab at busking in the square. ‘Stab’ seems to be the right word to begin with: after discovering that we are all men, Alexander Walls and I attempt the soprano lines in falsetto, with results you could describe as decidedly mixed. We quickly resolve to take the soprano lines down the octave, and actually end up sounding pretty good – we earn €7 between us. Less than the minimum wage; but hey, we had a good time.

4:30pm We get to our rehearsal late after failing to grasp the subtleties of Italian trains. It goes well though, and after dinner so does the concert. We’re now making a really nice noise – especially the soloists. ‘Drinks with all the people’ are helpfully scheduled in our itinerary for after the concert. These are alcoholic…


Saturday, 1 July

Breakfast We’re singing in Crema in the evening, but don’t need to rehearse until around 4pm. Rather than hang around in Lodi for most of the day, a group of us instead decide to head to Crema early – there look to be some nice riverside walks nearby. Cue a vast amount of time spent attempting to get to grips with the subtleties of Italian buses.

We eventually make it to Crema, and the walk and picnic are worth it. After we get back to Crema, we head to the wrong church, and struggle to find the right one – but Giampiero turns out to be two minutes away, so rescues us and buys us all ice cream.

The rest of the choir arrives by coach, and the rehearsal again goes well, though the choir as a whole seems to be pretty tired by this point. The Great Game after rehearsal is to find ‘thank you’ cards for David (our conductor) and Will McDonald (our organ scholar). ‘Thank you’ cards don’t really seem to be a thing in Italy, but I find two cards with the inscription ‘you are the music to my soul’. It seems fitting.

Our last concert goes really well – we’re sounding just as good as we did the night before, and in a much less cavernous acoustic. Giampiero throws us a party afterwards next door (Crema is his home town). More drinking follows on return to Lodi – this time in the cloisters, since partying on the roof had apparently disturbed other guests. Malcolm and Will Pickering managed to find two 5L bottles of wine with the helpful label ‘ROSSO’. It’s actually not half bad.

litre of red wine.jpg
Photo: Alexander Walls. Left to right: Malcolm Kittle (alto); Will Pickering (bass).

Sunday, 2 July

Tour barely feels like it’s begun, yet it’s already the last day. Fewer days and more concerts have led to an intense atmosphere, while a distinct lack of beaches has created a very different feel to last year’s chilled tour in the Côte d’Azur. Yet it’s been awesome fun all the same – and probably no bad thing that we’ve done more singing this year.

We’re not quite done, though – we still have a mass and several motets to sing at a midday service in the Basilica in Milan. Half the choir are losing their voices by this point, but it seems to go pretty well all the same. We’re quickly bundled into a coach after the service and taken to the airport.

Back at Heathrow, saying ‘goodbye’ takes far too long – as it always does. Somehow, tour always feels like an extension of term – so this is the point when we’re saying ‘goodbye’ to Oxford for the summer. There’s also the fact that many of the choir won’t be returning next year – some we might see again; some we might not. It becomes apparent that none of us really know how airports work: we end up saying our goodbyes far too early, creating a long, awkward period post-goodbyes when we’re still walking in the same direction.

Chapel choirs are fairly strange, as social groups go. Oriel choir contains a diverse mix of very different people, spanning a wide age range and an array of very different subjects. (Who knew so many engineers sang in chapel choirs?) You see each other regularly over the course of a year – but rehearsals contain little time for talking. (Most of the time, your mouth’s already open for, well, singing.) The main bonding experience occurs at the end of the year, in the form of choir tour – right at the point when half of the choristers are about to set off to whatever new choirs the future may hold.

Best of luck to them.

Choir 2016-17 (fun, cropped).jpg
Oriel College Chapel Choir 2016-17. Photo: César Manivet

More on Oriel Choir Tour 2017

The official write-up of Oriel Choir’s 2017 tour can be found on the Oriel website here.

More information on Giampiero Innocente and his choir – the Collegium Vocale di Crema – can be found here and here.

The full collection of images and videos from the tour can be found on the Facebook page and YouTube channel of the Collegium Vocale di Crema.

Oriel Choir’s official website can be found here. More information on the choir and music can also be found on the Oriel website here, and further information on Oriel Chapel in general can be found here.

This piece was originally published by The Poor Print on August 4, 2017.

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