From 2001 to 2006, the choir travelled to the stunning hilltop pueblo blanco (white village) of Jimena de la Frontera in Andalucia, Spain. In the summer of 2001, as well as the performance in Jimena, members sang Victoria’s Mass “O Quam Gloriosum” as part of a service in Gibraltar Cathedral that was broadcast in Gibraltar, Morocco and Southern Spain. The long day closed with a short recital of English part-songs washed down by cocktails on the terrace of the famous “Rock Hotel” overlooking the Straits of Gibraltar. The following year we sang the Byrd Four-part mass, and in August 2003, “The Lamentations of Jeremiah” by Thomas Tallis was the centrepiece of a concert of sacred and secular music, performed to a packed audience in the beautiful Iglesia Misericordia above the town.
In 2004, the choir performed Stanford’s “Songs of the Sea”, celebrating the piratical life of the English fleet, and Captain Drake’s famous encounter with the Spanish Armada, as well as motets by Spanish composers Morales and Victoria, and in 2005, the programme included movements of the Byrd Five-part mass.
‘Spain, you should go with the choir to Spain, you’d love it,’ said my friend Tilly. The dates fitted so I went.
Though I had sung quite a lot at school I joined the SCS only in January after more than forty years of virtual singing silence. I was worried that I would let down my fellow singers all of whom were more experienced than I, some of them very much more so. I did make mistakes during the rehearsals, plenty of them, including the cardinal sin of singing the wrong words, but these lapses became fewer and I can honestly say that never at any point was I made to feel that I shouldn’t be there. Thanks everyone.
The group this year was small: four sopranos, two or sometimes three, altos, one tenor and two basses all of whom arrived in Jimena de la Frontera in southern Spain in different combinations, by different routes and yawning because they had taken the early flight form Stansted to Jerez or travelled by night train from Barcelona or had failed to spot the person meeting them at Gibraltar. It seemed there were almost as many ways of getting to Jimena as there were items on the concert programme.
Your route is the chief topic of conversation when you arrive, together with what happened last year and the year before that because this is the fourth year that Monica and Peter Becko, musicians themselves, have hosted the Oxford Summertown Singers ( I discovered that this was what we were called from a poster in the supermarket) in their converted Court House situated in a picture- postcard-pretty pedestrian street. As the accommodation consists of two or three bed apartments, unless you arrive with a partner, dorm life is what’s on. Sharing ensures you aren’t lonely and that you get to know what’s going on, quite important if you don’t want to miss anything. There’s also a chance of waking up and finding someone standing beside your bed with a cup of tea and/or a slice of toast and jam.
Jimena de la Frontera is a small hill town of whitewashed houses built on a precipitous slope. At the top of the hill is a castle. I walked up to the castle on the first morning and saw the view before the full sun hit it. It’s spectacular. Actually almost everywhere you go there are views of the surrounding hills. For swimmers there’s a pool (closed while we were there) cafes, bars and restaurants all well known to the regular Jimena lot. For the newcomers it gradually all falls into place and names of restaurants become real places with people that you recognise and who recognise you and that you know how to get to. Soon too, you get used to Spanish time; waking late, eating late, falling into bed late. I slept in the sitting room of one of the apartments waking in the night to a clock striking, a donkey braying or the noise of the birds in the tree in the square at the bottom of the street. What set them off? A cat, a ghost? Who knows? Someone said the birds were sparrows but though there must have been a huge number of them I never saw a single one.
Lying on my bed at siesta time, trying to get my head round Tomas Luis Victoria’s ‘ O Vos Omnes’ and C Morales’ ‘Peccantem Me Quotidie’, I would drift off to sleep to the sound of someone practising the cello or flute in the music room, originally a chapel, or in the high-ceilinged room which ran the whole width of the house where as we were such a small group we held our rehearsals. After the evening rehearsal we would move into the courtyard and drink huge glassfuls of sherry while Lily Rose, Monica’s enchanting little grand-daughter played with her six dolls.
The rehearsals held morning and evening lasted about an hour and a half which left a good chunk of the day for excursions. My first day was spent in search of Bronze Age Cave paintings (which we never found) but I did see frogs jumping in a river pool, assist in the building of a cairn which our leader said would help us if we got lost and bound happy as larry along a dry river bed. After walking uphill for an hour and a half our map-readers finally turned tail at the sight of four black horns. Two fighting bulls?
Other people visited Gibraltar and Ronda, a nearby hill town with a bull-ring and on the last evening we drove to Castillo de Castellar, a small hill village where there were views of the Rock and the African coast. How bizarre I thought to be singing English madrigals and Stanford’s Sea Songs here, but it is the small ‘expat’ community who made up the audience for our concert in the now defunct church of La Misericordia – a venue with good acoustics which as well as helping us magnified the voice of the angry man who interrupted the concert to ask whose car was parked in his way. For one alarming split second I thought he was starting a revolution.
The post concert supper was hosted by one of the members of the audience in her candlelit courtyard and it was here during an impromptu rendering of ‘April Is In My Mistress Face’ that I decided that I’d definitely like to do this again. And again. Gracias.
Click here to see pictures of the 2005 choir trip to Jimena.