Monday, August 11 began our week of residency at Southwark Cathedral in London. This was the occasion for our trip, and we had almost a year to look forward to it. Under the direction of Professor Bruce Neswick, Mike and I and several colleagues played round-robin for a week, taking turns in front of the choir and on the organ bench. The choir comprised about forty singers, assembled by Mr. Neswick from all over the States, each of them a former or current chorister from his impressive history in choral work. We convened in London that Monday afternoon and each day except Wednesday, our day off, we met to rehearse at 3:30 for a 5:30 Evensong. Otherwise, the time was our own on those days. Of course, being on duty for directing, rehearsing, and playing each day meant that none of us student leaders did much sight-seeing, but we certainly had a good time. On our final day we led Sunday morning service before an early Evensong and then celebrated till sundown. It was such an honor to be in that position, and we had at our disposal a patient and good-humored choir, seasoned singers putting up with barely-formed professionals. I think it’s safe to say that we all had a lot of fun, in no small part because they were a phenomenal group, both socially and musically.
But our first day in London definitely goes on the books as the low point of our trip. We were feeling a little grumpy and a lot stressed, as we emerged from the fantasy-world of leisure travel to remember that we were now due to perform music we hadn’t practiced in over two weeks. Mike, especially, was due to be on the bench for the first prelude of the week, and he had more duties besides on that first day. We made the best of it and got our stride for the week by the end of the day. It was a learning day. We left Oxford about 8:45 to return our rental car at Heathrow and give our Oyster Cards their maiden voyage. Our moods weren’t helped any when we got led down several rabbit trails by the outdated GPS on our quest to fill the gas tank. But upon filling it we were pleasantly surprised: by renting a diesel car we ended up recovering almost all that we’d spent over-budget on the rental itself since in all our driving we expended barely more than a half tank of gas. Diesel is sweet.
From the rental car return we took a shuttle to the train station and from there, London’s famous tube, a journey that took about an hour before we emerged in London, starry-eyed, at Monument Station. It was a short walk across the London Bridge to reach Southwark, already in view from across the Thames, dwarfed in the massive shadow of The Shard, a recently built skyscraper. It was a stunning introduction to London. With our six heavy bags and business attire we made the walk, stopping at a street-side grocery for pre-packaged sandwiches, the first of a whole week of working lunches.
We were among the first of our group to arrive at Southwark, so we introduced ourselves and settled a few items of business. Mike parked himself in the choir room, which was to be our Green Room for the week. It was time for him to get down to business. Since I wasn’t on the docket for conducting or playing until the following day, I decided to continue on to check into our rooms, arrange a destination for our passports to be mailed, and figure out a game-plan for doing our laundry, since our detergent had been confiscated by TSA in France. I took as much of our luggage as I could transport on my own and set out for University College London. London showed me who was alpha-dog that afternoon, as I fought with my bags down cobbled roads and steep, long tube station staircases, coming to terms with the long, walking-heavy commute we’d have each day. By the time I got to our dorm I was sweaty and breathless and IN A MOOD. I had just enough time to drop our bags in our sixth-floor room and discover that, while it was in no uncertain terms A DORM, it was spacious and clean and had a very respectable bathroom to itself, and a view (of boring city rooftops) besides. In a rare introverted moment, I looked forward to making my way alone back to the Cathedral in time to meet the assembling choir, some of whom I’d already introduced myself to in the lobby of our dorm. I needed to wrap my mind around the worship-work we were about to begin and prepare my own heart for it. Instead, I found myself walking towards the station with members of our group. Small-talk it was, then, and I was still feeling like my head wasn’t in the game when we began our work.
Meanwhile, Mike had been at Southwark when Mr. Neswick arrived, and with him, some dreadful news: One of the five of us splitting most of the week’s duties had been retained in Nashville with passport troubles and would not be with us until Thursday at the earliest. All the music he’d prepared fell to the remainder of us to handle on the fly, and Mike stepped in to conduct the Stanford Service in C that afternoon, proving to himself (and the rest of us) that he is a hell of a conductor and rehearsalist. Not only that, but he was given the duty of leading our warm-ups each day. He stayed busy the whole week.
By the end of our work for the day Mike was having fun and I was having misgivings. I finally got into the spirit of things the next day and had a fantastic week, and it was good for me, giving me a chance to work through some of the leftover baggage dormant from some of the less happy aspects of my time at St. Olaf. There I’d learned unhealthy patterns of coping with a difficult worship environment, and here I had a chance to unlearn some of them.
Both of us were sore and achy, and still schlepping the bags I hadn’t been able to carry ahead to the dorms. But this was our night to catch a play at Shakespeare’s Globe, just five minutes’ walk from Southwark. We wouldn’t have another chance at it all week, and we had our eye on 5-pound standing-room tickets to Julius Caesar. We went for it, snarfing surprisingly good and surprisingly cheap BLTs from the Starbucks across the street from the theater as we stood on the boardwalk overlooking the Thames. The play was well worth the trouble, even though we couldn’t bear to stay past the end of the first act, standing on our feet in dress shoes with heavy bags looped over our shoulders or, when we couldn’t bear that, around our ankles, for fear of theft. Nonetheless, the play! The whole experience of being in that space! It was unforgettable. The excitement of the actors carrying the action off the stage, right down onto the floor beside us. The stretch of our intellects to make out of Shakespeare’s language (to us, all but foreign) a story-line. The wonder of the set, the costumes, the period instruments playing in period idioms. The horror of the stage blood as the cohort of traitors all took their turns stabbing him to his death. The hilarity as Portia nagged at Brutus to be a good husband, putting words in my own mouth perfect for teasing Mike. We were in all kinds of pain from the drudgery of the day, but we were happy as we walked across the Thames to the tube station and made our way to our new home.
There we finished unpacking and Mike walked out again in search of laundry detergent. It was after midnight when we finally fell into bed, having used the dorm laundry machines to re-supply ourselves with clean clothes. We earned that night of sleep.
Tuesday 12 August, 9:00 a.m., St. George’s, Hanover
Yesterday was intense and not all in a good way. Returned our car, took the tube to Southwark, Mike practiced while I went on to University College to check in to our dorm, returning for rehearsal and our first Evensong. Mike had to jump in on a dime to cover for one of our colleagues who is stuck in the states. He lead warm-ups, conducted the Stanford Mag & Nunc in C, and did the things he’d already prepared – Vierne III Adagio as voluntary and accompanying the Psalm. He did marvelous work and led well. It was fun to see. After Evensong we picked up sandwiches across from the Globe at Starbucks and ate them by the Thames before paying 5L each for standing room tickets to Julius Caesar. It was magnificent and thrilling, but our bodies were so tired and achy from a hard day of navigating London that we left after the first act, going home across Blackfriars Bridge to do laundry, falling into bed at midnight. It was not the best day – difficult and tense – but today is new, and while we’ve just found our prep time here at St. George’s has been lost by 50%, things are going well.