Becoming part of a
Story by Josh Lawlor, Senior Music Performance Major
and William Jewell College Concert Choir member
Very much a programme of two halves, the first working its way through several established choral classics, instantly recognisable to Anglican cathedral choirs, while the second looked at more contemporary music in a bewildering array of styles. Under Arnold Epley’s unpretentious direction, the choir thrived on crisp enunciation and good ensemble, equally comfortable in Stanford’s Beati quorum via and Stroope’s percussive Conversion of Saul. There were moments when the balance was a bit top-heavy, but on the whole this was a very pleasing concert. My one regret is that we have to wait another three years before the choir’s next visit to these shores.
On May 8th, just three days after final exams ended and two days after some of us graduated, the William Jewell College Concert Choir set out for a tour of England and Scotland. It’s a tradition that has been going for years; we’re the eighth choir from Jewell to tour ‘across the pond,’ but that certainly didn’t stop us from being thrilled as the plane lifted off the runway.
Arriving at Harlaxton Manor–an elaborate mansion outside of Grantham in the English midlands–gave us our first glimpse of what was an exceptional living situation. (Very few hotels have historians giving tours of the rooms.) We had just a day to take in the shock of not only jetlag, but also the beauty of our new surroundings, because we plunged into singing on the 10th.
It was an intense trip, full of travel, performance and sightseeing, with concerts in Grantham, Ely, Coventry, Edinburgh, York, Lincoln, Stamford and Oxford—all in less than two weeks. In each of these cities, we also had some time to be tourist-y, snapping pictures of the beautiful cathedrals and buying souvenirs at quite literally two dollars per pound.
Time spent at the end of the trip in London was exciting and eventful. Since I spent this past fall studying in Oxford, I stayed there seeing old friends and familiar places while the choir toured London. Everything really just flew by… well, everything except the coach ride to Scotland.
Some of my most memorable moments from this trip happened while wearing the big, shiny red dress—also known as a choir robe. Having already seen parts of England and being accustomed to immersion in other cultures, the performances became the most moving part of the trip for me. I’d toured places like this, but only sung in one of them during my previous time overseas. The cathedral performances were simply stunning for us, though it was sometimes difficult to gauge the emotional reactions of the audience. It tends to be difficult for Americans to interpret the British stiff upper lip.
What I do know is that we made choral music in buildings that are designed for two things: to inspire awe and to make choirs sound really great. It is so satisfying to finish singing a piece’s final chord and then hear the very sound you produced ring out for the next few seconds; this effect is enhanced when the buildings are like English cathedrals. They are the birthplace of great choral literature; hundreds of composers have written music just to employ the acoustics in these spaces. England’s cathedrals are where remarkable choirs sing, and we slipped into this tradition seamlessly.
The concert at Lincoln Cathedral was my favorite—it was the most appreciative audience, granting us an encore. Before the concert started, Dr. Epley said: “It is conceivable that William Byrd walked on these stones.” And then we stood on them and sang an anthem written by Byrd more than 500 years ago. We can now say, thanks to this trip and the legacy of William Jewell, that we are a part of the centuries-old, world-famous English choral tradition.