“A Week in Provence” (2004 Tour report)
From Peterhouse Chapel Choir
‘The year began with lunch.’ So opens Peter Mayle’s best-selling memoir, A Year in Provence. The Peterhouse Chapel Choir were going to the south of France for seven days only; our week began with a barbeque.
In fact, this is how we always start our annual summer Choir Tour. We assemble at the Dean’s house in Panton Street, eat charcoaly sausages, dodge the camcorder (a very Cam corder), and make predictions about the coming adventure. This year we had prognosticatory help not just from Peter Mayle, but also from John Keats: the more poetically literate amongst us were looking forward to ‘dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth’. Even Shakespeare was called in aid. Had not his Henry V prophesied to the French ambassador that the English would match their racket to his bawls? Our basses would be in their element!
Having had a night to digest our meaty cinders and these imaginative projections, the next day a private motorcoach took us from Trumpington Street to Dover (‘Once more unto the beach, dear friends’). We took an evening ferry across the Channel and then had a long long coach trip down to a Roman and medieval town called Vaison la Romaine. Our home there for the week would be at a hostel specialising in the accommodation of musical groups. Few must be the places that provide grand pianos (plural) for the use of their guests. Fewer still the places which allow them to be played with Liszt-tastic verve at all hours of the day and night. Its name was Le Moulin César, ‘The Mill on the Dog-food’, as a Franglais speaker translated it.
However, it was not the hostel, but the Romainian natatory regulations that presented us with our first dog’s breakfast. As we stepped off the coach, sticky and tired, into the intense heat of a summer’s afternoon, we naturally wanted, more than anything else in the world, to swim. We found our way, with the surety of a diviner’s rod, to the local open-air pool, only to be informed that speedos were de rigeur. Apparently, other forms of swimwear are sexist or a fire-hazard or could harbour bomb-making equipment - or some such health-and-safety concern. Being fashionably English, none of us, of course, possessed les speedos. Some of us would rather be seen dead than wearing them, but some were prepared to swallow hard, breathe in, and buy the wretched items. Thus there was a parting of the ways. The Vichy-like sympathisers stayed at the pool, a small group of tightly-knit members, while the Resistance went away and found a river where they could bathe louchely in their own costumes like true, unregulated, perfidious Albionites.
But a Choir Tour is more singing than swimming and so it is a pleasure to report that our three concerts passed off very successfully indeed. Smoothly. Soundly. Even swimmingly. That was in large part due to the excellent direction of the Senior Organ Scholar, Simon Bradshaw, ably accompanied by his Junior, Mark A. Smith. It was partly due to the excellent solo line sung by Julia Fordham in one of our most popular and spangly pieces, Gershwin’s Summertime. And it was partly due to a brilliant mistake in pre-publicity. At our first concert, in La Ciotat, where we were participating in a festival called ‘Musique en Eté’, we discovered that we had been billed not as ‘The Peterhouse Choir’, but as ‘The Perfect House Choir’. In huge red lettering on a poster outside the venue, ‘Peter’ had become ‘Perfect’ (a typographical allegory of sanctification if ever there was one). Not only that, but we were introduced by the local mayor as ‘a choir which could be said to be among the best student choirs in England’. Well, yes, indeed: could be. And give un chien a good name . . . The audience loved us and clapped and stood and cheered and shouted ‘Do it again!’ (or ‘Encore!’ as we would say). It was almost embarrassing.
The next concert, at Cavaillon Cathedral, was also very well received. If the audience were just a trifle less ecstatic, there were only two things that could account for the difference. One was that the Dean, Mark’s page-turner for the event, overdid it at a crucial juncture and accidentally swept his music to the floor; this during the inaptly named ‘Thou Shalt Keep Him in Perfect Peace’. The other was that Nick Grafton-Green was singing in his stockinged feet, having forgotten to take his black shoes with him that evening. Nick, perhaps the most active and enthusiastic person never to have been born an American, generally put the rest of us to shame. He would run up a couple of mountains before breakfast, then eat a thousand hot dogs for that breakfast, all without either frowning or putting on weight. Awesome! But on this occasion he was insufficiently leathered.
However, the Dean remembered discretion and Nick located his shoes for the third concert and our reception on this occasion was even more jubilant than when we were regarded as ‘Perfect’. We were singing in the church of Saint Restitut as part of the Montelimar Summer Festival, ‘Voix et Guitares’, and, as at the previous concerts, Towera Ridley, our best French-speaker, introduced us to the audience most winningly. We went down so well that even our encore was encored. Simon (‘Once More’) Bradshaw unprecedentedly found himself on the receiving end of his characteristic injunction. O tempora, O mores!
In addition to the three concerts, we danced sur le pont d’Avignon and sang Mass at a service in Aix-en-Provence Cathedral. Here there were many distractions. First of all, the priest was wearing brown boots. (Brown boots, I ask you! - surely the sacarament was invalid!) Second, he was wearing a checked shirt under his vestments. (And yet the French have the cheek to insist that we wear speedos!) Third, he and his fellow clerics were sitting on sedilia of such gaudy melted garishness (like a gilt Henry Moore on a bad day) that it was virtually impossible to look in their direction without being blinded. Still, somehow we managed to sing our way through the service. We reminded ourselves that worse things happen at sea. Only we couldn’t think what they might be.
As it happened, we ourselves went to the seaside later that same day, to a resort called Cassis. Here we found a rocky diving-place above a swirling cauldron of waves. Into this cauldron the bolder members of the Choir dived (or dove, if they had American leanings) while our less adventurous souls looked on in mingled horror and envy. What with the bathing in Vaison, the diving here, and the fabulous time we had swimming under the arches of the Pont du Gard Aqueduct (which we visited on our last full day), the 2004 Choir Tour had a definite theme. Our signature tune on the Tour Tape could justifiably have been changed from Sir Tom Jones’s ‘Sex Bomb’ (always an inexplicable choice) to Handel’s Water Music. Culturally sensitive as we were, however, we thought that our French coach-driver and, more frighteningly, our French tour guide (‘Who is Sylvia? What is she?’) would not have taken warmly to repeated playings of a piece by an Englished German. Throughout our time abroad on this excellent trip we did our best to prove our Francophiliac intentions, not least by putting an unusually high proprotion of French numbers into our repertoire, including three motets by Maurice Duruflé and a short item by Josquin Desprez called Mille Regrets. And we had no regrets whatever.
- Michael Ward,
- Autumn 2004