Thursday 14 August, 2:30 p.m., The Vestry, Southwark
Preparing Psalm 40 for tonight’s Evensong, and hearing the rain pound on the skylight. The sound makes the simple place of being indoors feel like a luxury – a haven. So glad to be here to worship this week, and for churches – true sanctuaries to shut out the bustle of the likes of London.
Friday 15 August, 9:45 p.m.
Last night we gave a recital – such fun! – and then enjoyed an uproarious good time with friends at a pub before taking the metro home via McDonald’s for a midnight snack – the damned pub kitchens close so early we night owls keep missing dinner!
Thursday morning at Ashley Hotel we slept in and took our sweet time preparing for the day. This was not the day to throw any old outfit on and cut corners. From our return train we’d head straight for a warm-up at St. George’s and from there to our afternoon’s work at Southwark, doubling back to put on our recitalist hats. No zen moments to collect ourselves, nap, or primp. We were dressed with bells on by the time we put in our appearance in the hotel’s breakfast room. There we enjoyed a no-less-abundant English breakfast than usual, though this one was closer to the cafeteria fare we’d met in London than the fine cuisine of our weekend road trip. Even the decor of Ashley Hotel was reminiscent of Grandmas Everywhere, and the clientele clearly matched. The food seemed to fit the generation: A little too canned and processed, in general. But the company was good and lively, and my staunchly liturgically minimalist sister and brother-in-law even managed to push my ecclesiological buttons before we rose from the table, going on a rant about certain points of Roman Catholicism that I couldn’t find anything but funny since it clearly came from an ignorance of the fact that they were not in sympathetic company. (And thus it ever was.) Slowly I am learning not to take these sorts of moments personally, and this one was just entertaining for me as I listened quietly and kept my opinions to myself. (Love you, Kilby.)
Our London-bound train left at 10:04, and we got there with plenty of time. While Mike went to the automated kiosks to look up our tickets I hedged our bets by standing in the long line at the ticket counter. By a stroke of luck the machine spat out not two but six tickets, including the ones we should’ve had the day before. So we boarded our train and got down to business, studying our scores both for services and for the recital. It’s not every day I ride a British train like a professional, dressed to the nines and studying Bach like a pro. (I kinda like it.)
We had a few minutes to kill between arriving in London and beginning our scheduled practice at St. George’s, so we followed our map to find the alleged Handel House Museum nearby. We never could find the museum, but in the place where we expected it we found a giant wall mosaic celebrating him. From there it was a couple minutes’ stroll to the church, through the quaintest (wealthiest) back alleys you could imagine. Stereotypical upper-class urban London?
Mike took the first shift of our practice time and then I got on the bench for the last 45 minutes. Within 15 minutes I heard our professor, the one managing the recital, call my name from below. At her side was our colleague with the passport trouble, fresh off the plane from the States after three days of limbo. No arguments here! I hopped off the bench, barely warmed up, and trusted my performance to the powers of passion and adrenaline. There were still long passages I hadn’t touched in three weeks. But David had arrived, and that was all that mattered. We were all insanely pleased to see him, and even more than new of his misfortune had dampened our collective spirits for the first two days, our delight at his arrival put an extra energy into the rest of our week.
To Southwark, then, where there was a lot of work to do. Mike was on the bench for the closing hymn and closing voluntary, playing Bach’s Wir Glauben All. I was up to conduct the Martin Neary Preces and the never-ending Psalm 40. Conducting that Psalm was also one of the pinnacle moments of our trip for me, and our professor’s instructions from months prior – “Let them sink into prayer” – became my goal and my experience. What a profound moment! If you’re not familiar with the business of chanted Psalmody within the Anglican tradition, it will help to explain that, while quite simplistic in form, its preparation is considered the choir’s hardest work in traditions where it is practiced. To execute it well takes enormous preparation and synergy, and the result is awe-inspiring and amazingly simple in its effect. The text – and the act of prayer – shines through.
On our way to Southwark that very busy day we’d stopped at Pret a Manger to pick up lunch, a chain we’d learned to trust since our arrival in London. These shops are everywhere, affording busy professionals a quick coffee and a satisfying selection of prepared meals. It’s the kind of fare you’d expect to find at the Starbucks counter, conveniently packaged, but for half the price and with five times the selection. Sandwiches on baguettes or thick hearty sliced bread, salads, sushi rolls if that’s your fancy. It’s all there, and the ingredients aren’t plain, including things like goat cheese or cilantro or prosciutto. Europeans know how to eat. What we loved about Pret a Manger and its cousins was that they were everywhere, cheap, and stocked with genuinely fresh food. In fact, highly branded fast food chains were almost nowhere to be found. I could begin on the national policies, cultures, and practices at the back of this phenomenon, but I’ll save it.
To Pret a Manger we returned, depending on it as a sure instant food source, no maps or detours required. Our schedule was tight but the most important thing on our agenda was to feed David, who hadn’t eaten since his airplane. Friends don’t let friends play recitalists on an empty stomach. David fed (and raspberries dripped on his white dress shirt – the universe was picking on this guy!), we walked the rest of the way to St. George’s, as fast as our dress shoes would take us. There were seven of us on the recital – the five primary student-leaders of the Southwark group and two alums. We had about 40 minutes of warm-up to share amongst us, so we were all in high gear. It was a long recital, but packed with good music and everyone performed very well despite how rushed the hours leading up to it were. Is this the sign of a professional? Still able to execute your craft without time to get your head in the game?
Anyway, for me it was a complete mountaintop experience, I think because where some (including Mike) excel by cold, hard, calculated preparation, I tend to be more of a loose cannon, less disciplined, and passionate a million times over. Of the the three practice sessions I’d had two had been shaved to almost nothing, so all I really had to go on was that passion and it served me well. I think it was also my age and life experience: after studying, training, honing through school I’d gotten out of the game and had two kids, learning in the process to Just Do It. When things aren’t ideal you are still Mom, which means you are still the one Making It Happen and, in your kids eyes, Running the Universe. I think it’s made me confident, and I don’t second-guess myself anymore. I just get in and get it done. That’s how that recital felt, and combined with the Just Get It Done practicing of the spring and early summer months, I found myself completely in command of the moment. There were no nerves, and just enough adrenaline to misplace a few handfuls of notes now and then. Even in those slips, I felt complete control and mental engagement. I have never in my life had so much fun on the bench. It was a personal triumph for me like I’ve really never felt before. Music and I have had a stormy relationship. It was my whole life up until I became a mom and then barely a part of my life at all. We didn’t end well, either, and I’ve often assumed that the height of my career would forever be my junior recital, a skill level and passion never again to be matched. Quite the contrary, it seems the simple business of life has been working on my deepest self – musician to the core, unchangeably – and, finally getting to apply myself to my old trade, I was surprised to find myself better at it, and feeling better about it, than ever before. Now it’s September and I haven’t played a note since my second performance of that piece for closing voluntary of our Sunday morning service, and I don’t expect to again for a long time. I’m “just a mom” again by choice, but now there’s this knowledge that the musician in me is dormant but in no way lessened or lapsed, and that is a treasure I will never begin to describe. For me, this alone is worth this whole trip.
Summary: I played the hell out of that Bach, his E Major Toccata, BWV 566. I made it mine. So I was pretty euphoric as we left the church and walked across the street to a pub, where the whole gang of us had a wildly good time till late into the night. Finally, tired, adequately tipsy, and having resigned ourselves to going to bed on a dinner of only potato chips (the pub’s kitchen having been closed), we set out with a few friends for the journey back to University College London. Emerging from Russell Square Station we spotted one of those rare fast food locations, a flashy, ultra-modern looking McDonalds. It was not a hard decision, stopping in for some midnight grease to fill our hungry, happy bellies, and so there we were, eating McDonalds in Europe. Apparently it happens.
Back at the dorm, the day wasn’t over yet. Once in our sixth-floor room we remembered that small matter of our passports, which had been due to arrive while we were in Cambridge. Back down the elevator I went, to find our newly-arrived colleague now trying to check in at the reception desk without success. It was after midnight and the receptionist, speaking less than satisfactory English in a heavy Haitian accent, was in a serious mood, and pushing people around – not just my befuddled and irritated and over-tired friends, who were beginning to panic at the prospect of no welcome for David at this late hour, but some local student who was badgering him endlessly in Mandarin for a reimbursement of the 1 pound the vending machine had not returned to him. Of course the receptionist wasn’t going to handle that request out of his own pocket, and eventually he barked at our Asian friend to speak to the belligerent student. Slightly insulted, she obliged anyway and it seemed to help. This was the point at which I came down the elevator. The whole thing, though frustrating, was rather hilarious, and the night watchman and I had an amusing rapport from then on. I was happy to find, after we’d convinced him to let David stay the night by my last-ditch suggestion that he was “with the Indiana University group,” that, indeed, our passports had arrived safe and sound. From then on whenever this receptionist saw me he asked in mock irritation what I could possibly want this time.
This was the most ridiculous of the days of our trip, beginning in Cambridge, including a full day of work in London, ending with a once-in-a-lifetime recital performance in the spot where Handel sat to play three centuries ago. You are not supposed to accomplish this much in one day, but we did and we even managed to squeeze in a McBurger at the end. This one goes on the books for us in the “Did that really happen?” chapter.