14 – 18 August
Having only joined SCS in October 2011, this was my first opportunity to take part in the annual summer visit to sing in foreign parts. This year some 35 of us (including three friends of Duncan who strengthened the tenor and bass lines) met up in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, a delightful small mediæval town in the Rioja Alta region, on the final (common) part of the northern and eastern pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela. As usual, the trip was organised by Diane Benfield, whose calm efficiency was responsible for the success of the venture, though the degree of understanding we enjoyed with the locals was greatly enhanced by our Spanish-speaking alto, Sue Cavanna.
My dilatoriness in getting down to booking the trip was solved by an email from Diane in late March saying that Clive Booth had hired a car from Bilbao airport and was offering transport to and from Santo Domingo. I then grasped the nettle and booked my flights and accommodation. Without that kind offer I would have continued dithering for weeks and paid much more for both.
We arrived on the evening of Monday 13th August, and rehearsals, which took place in a beautiful old chapel adjacent to the cathedral, started the next morning. Most of these 3-hour sessions were punctuated by a practice of the challenging men-only Schubert piece, during which we women bonded over coffee. Tourists (almost entirely Spanish) were quite uninhibited about entering the chapel during our rehearsals, and sometimes stayed long enough to applaud, which was encouraging! Afternoons were free, with only one organised trip, to the bodega (winery) of Lopez de Heredia near Haro, where last year’s concert took place. After a fascinating tour of the cellars, in which wine has been made and stored by the same methods and the same family since 1877, there was of course a tasting, at which we sang one of our pieces to the wonderful young woman who had shown us round.
On the first evening, several of us went to see the local pageant, in which large numbers of local people of all ages (I reckon the youngest was only 3) presented the story of Santo Domingo with words, music and live animals (a cock and hen, and horses including one performing dressage movements). It was entirely in Spanish but quite comprehensible if one had read a summary about the town and its saint on the internet in advance of the trip. It was fun to discover why a live cock and hen are still kept in a cage in the cathedral.
On Saturday evening we sang the Byrd Four-part mass for the cathedral service. The priest told us afterwards that the congregation had numbered around 700, 450-500 of whom stayed on for the secular concert. For the mass, we were placed in a small side-aisle in front of a magnificently ornate late gothic retablo. The spare folding chairs stored alongside our benches were much in demand as people continued to arrive long after the pews were full, even squeezing past Duncan to get them while he was conducting us. We relatively inhibited British found this behaviour culturally fascinating! After the service we moved to a rather cramped space in front of the altar for the concert. It went down so well that we were treated to a noisy standing ovation and sang one of the songs again as an encore. As we left to go upstairs for a magnificent spread, many people came over to us expressing their warm thanks – it was very moving. Apparently there is no tradition of this kind of choral singing in Spain, so it was much appreciated. After the generous cathedral-sponsored buffet we went to a nearby outdoor café for drinks, as guests of the current owner of the bodega, who is the great-grand-daughter of the founder.
I am enormously grateful to Duncan for his expert musical direction of the lovely music, both sacred and secular, that he chose for the trip. The discipline of singing every day was great, and the concert itself quite inspiring – was I really contributing to this lovely sound? I knew very few of the group before we started rehearsing, and getting to know a small core of SCS members has been one of the lasting benefits of joining this band of enthusiasts. At last, I’ll be one of those people who warmly greet fellow singers at SCS rehearsals this coming term!