St Michael's Choir tour to Lancashire - April 2019 (written by Marion Bettsworth)
In April 2018 we visited Blackburn Cathedral and enjoyed our tour there so much that we decided to return the following year. However, a few months before our trip, disaster struck when it transpired that the Cathedral had accidentally double-booked their visiting choirs for the weekend in question. Our Director of Music, Paul, and Assistant Director of Music, Marion, are both originally from Lancashire and used their contacts there to put together a alternative tour singing services at their old churches in Lancaster and Broughton instead.
On Saturday 6 April we met in sunny Lancaster for our morning rehearsal at the Priory. Those of us who made it there in time were able to catch a wonderful song recital given by Don Gillthorpe, Director of Music at the Priory. We then gathered in the choir vestry and set to work practising music by Byrd, Gibbons and Smith for Evensong that afternoon. Lancaster Priory is home to some beautiful medieval carved oak choir stalls and misericords in the Chancel, and has a lovely acoustic. We sang Evensong in the Priory’s stunning surroundings, Paul enjoyed the sounds available on the magnificent Willis/Harrison organ, installed in 2012, and it was a very special moment for Marion, who had her first organ lessons at the Priory and sang there as a chorister many years ago.
Marion rehearses the choir in Lancaster Priory. / Choir members enjoy the beautiful Lancastrian weather!
After Evensong certain members of the choir had a rather different task to deal with. Colin, one of our basses, had entered a multi-storey car park with a roof box on his car, and had somehow managed to get stuck. Choir members piled into Colin’s car in an effort to lower it, and Colin successfully navigated out of the car park without causing any more damage to his roof box or the car park’s rather low roof! How many choir members can you fit in a Mini? How many singers does it take to help Colin out of a car park? There's a joke in there somewhere! All that excitement called for some food, and we all headed to an Italian restaurant for dinner.
A well deserved meal at the end of a full day of singing.
The next day, Passion Sunday, we met for a 9am rehearsal to rehearse our challenging programme of Howells, Duruflé and Handl for Sunday morning’s Eucharist at Lancaster Priory. This time Paul was conducting, and Marion was playing the organ she had learned on and enjoyed using some of her favourite sounds in the Howells.
In the afternoon we travelled south down the M6 to Broughton, Paul’s old stomping ground, where we were to sing a joint Evensong with the choir of Broughton Parish Church. On the menu was music by Mozart, Stanford, Balfour Gardiner and Smith. The two combined choirs made a phenomenal sound, with some seventy-five singers squeezed into the choir stalls, and we were welcomed with the most incredible hospitality; we were treated to some of the biggest éclairs and cakes we had ever seen, as well as a traditional Lancashire hotpot supper!
That evening marked the end of our tour and we then went our separate ways, with very fond memories of our second tour to Lancashire. We thank our friends at Lancaster Priory and Broughton Parish Church for making us feel so very welcome, and we hope that they will visit us down in London soon.
The combined choirs of St Michael's and Broughton Parish Church. / Lancashire hospitality did not disappoint!
St Michael’s Choir visits Blackburn - April 2018 (written by Dennis Benton)
The Parish Choir spent the weekend of 7/8 April singing the services at Blackburn Cathedral, filling in while the Cathedral Choir took their post-Easter break.
Our music director Paul Dean comes from nearby Preston and our assistant organist Marion Bettsworth was also brought up in the area. Her brother joined us to sing bass. So we were among friends. We were certainly made very welcome by the Cathedral clergy – and even managed (we hope) to satisfy the virger.
Blackburn is one of England’s newer cathedrals and surprised us by its graceful blend of innovation and tradition. For many centuries it had been the Parish Church of Blackburn, dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, and it is now the mother church of the Diocese, which covers almost the whole of Lancashire.
We sang Evensong on Saturday, rehearsing first in the grandly titled Schola Cantorum, or Song School, before a rehearsal in the choir stalls. After the service we had a rehearsal in preparation for Sunday, before being released exhausted for dinner.
On Sunday morning we had another rehearsal in the Song School before singing for the Cathedral Eucharist, followed by two more rehearsals in the afternoon for Choral Evensong.
With five and a half hours of rehearsals and three services, we were kept so busy that we had little time to explore beyond the historic centre of Blackburn which, like the Cathedral, harmoniously blended old and new. We looked hard but could find no holes in Blackburn!
Choir Trip to Brittany - April 2014 (written by Dennis Benton)
The St Michael’s Parish Choir spent a hectic three days in northern Brittany in early April singing in churches in the Dinard area.
Elegant belle époque Dinard has strong links with the UK. It holds an annual British film festival and a splendid statue of Alfred Hitchcock (birds and all) stands on the seaside esplanade gazing over the river Rance towards to the walled old corsair port of St Malo.
A British contingent was already settled in the area at the end of the 19th century because of its benign micro-climate. Lady Sassoon had a French chateau built there (but insisted on Tudor chimneys!) She left the grand house and its park to the bemused people of Dinard and it is a much appreciated venue for bridge players and others visiting its menagerie.
Long-established in Dinard is the very English-looking St Bartholomew’s Anglican Church in the centre of the town (conveniently close to the Casino). The priest in charge, Gareth Randall, was most welcoming. He says the main reason that St Bartholomew’s still exists is that the congregation owns the freehold. Otherwise, he says, it would have been closed down like so many Anglican churches in France.
Our 18-strong party, led by Paul Dean, gave our first recital at St Bartholomew’s, featuring music reflecting the main festivals of the Church year as well as three anthems honouring the war dead to mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War One. As in the UK, every church in the area has a memorial to those who died.
We were given a very friendly reception by the congregation – by no means all of them British expatriates – and were pleased to be reviewed by a correspondent of Ouest-France who said ‘One felt almost transported across the Channel, or even to another era, on hearing these magnificent religious works, interpreted in four parts, by choristers dressed in cassocks and surplices. It was warmly appreciated by an audience of some 50 people whose only wish was to see the revival of this type of event, consecrated to tradition.’
The following day was spent exploring the picturesque medieval city of Dinan before a recital in the lovely 13th century Abbaye Magloire in nearby Lehon, lined with the tombs of the Breton aristocracy. Sadly, our recital hadn’t been publicized so only a handful of people turned up at the rather remote venue. But our day was made by Lisa Brading falling into a smelly swamp while negotiating the tow path along the canal from Dinan to Lehon. A sympathetic taxi driver took her back to Dinard to change and she was able to join us, fresh as a daisy, for a splendid dinner at a restaurant near the abbey which opened especially for us.
On our third day there – warm and sunny – we visited Mont St Michel, the world heritage site, where we toured the famous abbey. On the way back some of us called in at Cancale, the oyster capital of France, before our last recital. This was at a typical French parish church at Saint-Briac-sur-Mer, close to Dinard. We were introduced to it by a bicycle-riding Scottish retired architect 83-year-old Gordon Maxwell who sometimes plays the organ there.
Gordon kindly prepared a meal for us in a room at the local Mairie before taking us through a vigorous rendition of ‘head, shoulders, knees and toes’ to prepare us for our recital. The generous review of our St Bartholomew’s performance had appeared in that morning’s paper and perhaps helped boost the attendance. We were moved by the obvious pleasure of the audience, especially their response to a solo by 12 year-old Oscar Thiagaraj. We were glad to see in the audience a former St Michael’s parishioner David Hooper who now lives in the area.