February 2011 Tour Diary by Mark Dobell

Thursday Feb 17th

‘Blog roulette’ has chosen me as the chronicler of this Orlando Consort tour to the USA. First of all, readers, I offer a two-fold apology. I have no great aspirations to be a travel writer, and I think you will see why.  Furthermore this is quite a short tour (seven days in total) and the majority of it is going to be spent travelling: we have four travel days and three concert days.  And I don’t mean travelling in the sense of driving a Harley-Davidson through interesting small towns in America. I mean sitting in airports and on planes.

So it is then that we leave London for Columbus, Ohio. The plane is busy, the service is surly, the meal is pretty awful, and the Russian gentleman next to me gradually takes control of the armrest between us. In short, a standard flying experience. We all agree that the film selection isn’t great, though I would still say that Cooper’s Law pertains: for some reason at 36,000 feet the sadness or funniness of a film is greatly exaggerated. Perhaps it is the lack of oxygen.

A couple of hours in the bowels of Washington Dulles airport affords the opportunity to de-telescope my spine, queue for a long time for Immigration, pick up the luggage, re-check the luggage, and endure some woman making boarding announcements in an ear-splitting voice, before we take a much smaller plane to Columbus. There we take a shuttle (on which our accents draw comment for the first time) to an airport hotel. We all go for our traditional US tour curtain-raiser of burger and a beer - Don worryingly orders a salad but luckily it arrives looking pretty unhealthy too - which is more than anything so that we don’t go to bed at 7pm. I manage to keep my eyes open until about 10pm before the long day finally claims me.

Friday Feb 18th

I wake just after 8am, which is pretty good for jet-lag although I am not counting my chickens yet. After a couple of hours pottering around my room, I head to the Waffle House for breakfast.

We often feel, when stranded out by a freeway in a hotel, that we have very little access to cultural activities. I would argue, however, that dining at a Waffle House is in itself a fascinating cultural experience. All the staff are hollering orders at the same time, multi-tasking conversations at full volume with the customers, and it is best not to inspect the floor by the stove too closely. The waitresses’ aprons proclaim ‘Good food, fast and friendly’ and I reckon they are about two-thirds right. It is certainly fast and the welcome is indisputably friendly. As for the quality of the food, it tastes great but I am amazed they do not have a paramedic on permanent call. I justify to myself that I will have no need for lunch, and will be able to operate on a two-stop strategy today. While I am there my accent once again sparks a conversation. I suppose an Englishman in what is essentially a glorified truck stop is something of a curiosity. And if you want to experience cultural difference, try explaining to the regulars that you are over here to sing medieval music…

At lunchtime we meet up with Kathy Wolfe, the Program Director for Early Music in Columbus. She takes us over to Cassingham Elementary School, where we are to perform a short programme entitled ‘The Worlde According to Henrietta Fitzjohn, aged 10 ¾’ to about 400 schoolchildren aged 5-12. It is quite a daunting prospect to engage with kids of such a wide age range, but they are well behaved and listen attentively to the story and the music, until drama strikes halfway through. Our concert is interrupted because a teacher has spotted smoke rising from one of the lights on stage. With impeccable calmness the children are evacuated outside while the fire department is called, and by the time the decision is taken 10 minutes later that we cannot finish the concert there are no fewer than four fire engines outside. Impressive. So, disappointed to have been cut off in our prime, we head back to our hotel to rest before the evening’s main event.

Later that evening, we give a concert of ‘Amore - Love and Marriage in Renaissance Italy’ in the Mees Hall at Capital University. The concert goes well, especially once you consider how far we have travelled yesterday. It is a programme that never seems to be familiar, no matter how often we sing it, so it can be nerve-shredding, but it passes off without a hitch, and we toast ourselves afterwards with a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (default beer of choice in the USA). Then we go out for an Italian meal with Kathy and her husband Grant, and Dan and Roberta, two other board members of Early Music in Columbus. We get to the hotel at midnight and, despite feeling dog-tired, I know I have to pack my suitcase before I go to bed.

Saturday Feb 19th

Travel. That’s what today is about. Don and I take the 8am shuttle to the airport, and Angus and Matt follow on the next one. We gravitate to Starbucks near our gate, once we’ve been through the seemingly endless security line. This is the sort of conversation we have:

MD: You know when the machine beeps and you have to patted down by the security personnel? Men have to be patted down by male officers and women by female officers, which is presumably because otherwise there might be inappropriate groping, right? Does that mean you can’t be a gay security officer?

DG: Well, that would obviously be against Employment Law.

MD: But the process takes no account of sexual preferences of officers, or passengers for that matter…

MV: Maybe you can request a female officer?

[We all laugh at the prospect of Matt asking to be patted down by a woman and being arrested for being a pervert]
All right, I admit it’s not particularly highbrow, but we can’t discuss art and politics all the time.

After a quick hop to Chicago, we wander around O’Hare airport for a while trying to find something we want for lunch. Sometimes too much choice is overwhelming. On the plane they show The King’s Speech, which I very much enjoy despite it being on a tiny screen near the ceiling. I ponder that my wife is watching the same film in the cinema back home at more or less the same time, so I can tell myself we are watching it together. That just makes me homesick though.

We arrive, a bit delayed, in a surprisingly cold and rainy San Francisco, pick up our bags and collect our hire car. Don graciously takes the role of driver (not least because he was expecting to be the only one allowed to drive, the other three of us having managed to forget the paper counterparts of our driving licences) and carefully negotiates the hour-and-a-half drive to Stockton. We are staying in a lovely Hilton. After dropping our luggage in our rooms, checking out the view, hanging up crumpled suits etc., we have a rehearsal on tomorrow’s concert programme, until hunger and tiredness render us useless. Then we set out in search of food.

As usual in America, walking anywhere is considered lunacy. So we are honked at by cars and take our lives into our hands crossing Interstates, and settle for a Mexican restaurant, having rejected the Mongolian Barbecue option. It’s not a bad meal, though we are all agreed that Mexican food never quite lives up to the craving for Mexican food. Our friendly waitress asks Matt for his ID, which he has left at the hotel, despite the full knowledge that he looks about 12 years old. The other three of us are jealous that our ID is not needed. Luckily we are able to persuade her that he is 27 (by sawing him in half and counting the rings) and he is granted a Negro Modelo too. Stuffed like fajitas, we head back to our hotel and I note that, although it feels like the middle of the night, it is only 9.30. No option but to call it an early night.

Sunday Feb 20th

 That’s more like it. Awake at 3am and 6am.

I eventually get up at 7.30 when an intoxicated woman tries (unsuccessfully, I am pleased to report) to get into my room.  There was a wedding last night at the hotel and it seems she had made a long night of it before forgetting which floor her room was on.

Normal service has been restored outside. The sun is shining and although it is not warm, it does immediately resemble California again. After a hearty (my word for unhealthy) breakfast, we drive down to the Faye Spanos Concert Hall, at the University of the Pacific, for our rehearsal. Today’s programme is ‘Food, Wine and Song’ which feels a lot more familiar to me. We knock it into shape and return to the Green Room. There we find - as well as some tasty cheese and fruit - a local newspaper with an article about our concert in it. This is based (loosely) on an interview Angus gave some days ago by telephone, and curiously at this point Angus uses the excuse of going to find a coffee to make himself scarce. We read the article and soon discover why…

Without question, this is the most factually inaccurate piece of journalism I have ever read. It seems the journalist had a chat with Angus and then just spun the words he had heard into some sort of fantasy. So we read that:
• Angus dreams of playing for England as a batsman (perhaps he used to)
• Angus is 50 (51) and has been in the Consort for 20 years (22)
• Don is 52 (51)
• I am 39 (36)
• Matthew sang at the wedding of Charles and Diana (false) in 1989 (not even close, it was 1981, before Matthew was even born)
• We will get through our survey of Mediaeval and Renaissance music in 90 minutes

OK, that last one is almost correct. But as for the rest, you would think the author might have checked his facts. I mean, if not our ages then at least the date of Charles and Di’s wedding. And even if that had been in 1989, could he not have worked out that Matt would have been 5 years old at the time?

 

Soon enough it is time for the concert. It goes quite well; the audience seems very receptive and certainly they laugh at our jokes in the introductions to pieces that we give from time to time. The laughter is a bit more muted in the more risqué sections of the programme, so maybe we have offended a few delicate sensibilities. If so, nobody mentions it afterwards in the foyer or at the reception that follows. It seems like a very friendly Chamber Music organisation, and they have been very welcoming - we are only the second vocal group they have had, apparently. It would be wrong not to mention that, as usual, some people ask Matt what he will do when his voice breaks. It seems the countertenor voice is still a novelty act to some.

We stop off back at the hotel briefly to drop our concert gear, and forge out (again on foot) for supper. This time we venture a little further, under the Interstate, and having rejected the pricey Italian and the chain Italian that smells of synthetic parmesan, we plump for the hilariously named Dave Wong’s Chinese, which turns out to be very decent and not at all expensive. Then we wander back to base. The first lesson of touring is always to pack the night before you leave a place, no matter how sleepy you feel, and true to this I manage to jam everything back into my case before falling into bed.

Monday Feb 21st

An early start, as we are concerned there might be Monday morning traffic on the way to San Francisco. It turns out that it is Presidents’ Day (a national holiday in the States), and I don’t know whether you would expect more people or fewer on the roads, but it seems straightforward enough. It is my turn to drive the minivan. It is a typical American vehicle, an ugly unresponsive beast that probably does about 8 miles to the gallon and accelerates from 0-60 in a week and a half. If you send in a written application. Sorry, this isn’t Top Gear is it? We make it back to the airport in good time, drop the car, check our bags and join a very slow queue for security. Angus laughs at an old lady trying to get through with no ID and promptly leaves his sweater behind. Karma is quick these days.

It is a 4 ½ hour flight to JFK, but feels longer. My right buttock cramps up from trying not to sit in my neighbour’s lap, and my back screams at me that it doesn’t want to fly any more. I sleep through most of a truly awful film, read about half a book and finish a Su Doku and a crossword puzzle - a pretty good day’s work.

Once in New York, we take our shuttle to our hotel on the Upper West Side and arrive there around 7.30. The luggage springs open and explodes in my room, so I leave it and we go for a beer and dinner (very good Thai just around the corner). The flying has taken its toll, and we make our Carnegie debut tomorrow, so I’m straight into my King Size bed for a long sleep.

Tuesday Feb 22nd

 I open the curtains to a beautiful winter’s day in New York. The sun is out and there is not a cloud in the azure sky, so I resolve to go for a long walk. After a phone call home and a spate of admin in the room - mainly checking up on the cricket scores - I set out. Manhattan is a great place, really vibrant and full of character (and characters). You can walk anywhere (unlike most of the USA), it is almost impossible to get lost and you are never far from a coffee shop in which to sit and watch people. I make it into Central Park and wander aimlessly for a bit (as Wordsworth didn’t quite put it) admiring the views of the city. Unfortunately despite the sun’s best efforts it is bitterly cold, so I curtail my constitutional and settle into a café for lunch. Then I mosey back to the hotel for more admin - football scores this time.

If it sounds like I don’t accomplish much on tour, you’d be right. I always intend to do more constructive sightseeing - apart from anything New York has great museums and art galleries - but the desire to hibernate just gets the better of me. I think on some level I need the down time to be mentally rested for the concerts, but perhaps this is all an excuse and I am in fact just plain lazy.

In any case, five o’clock rolls around all too quickly and it is time to head down to Carnegie Hall. We take a cab downtown, and are met and shown our dressing rooms by the very helpful and friendly Jennifer. The Weill Hall is an intimate, beautiful space with a very easy acoustic (we’ve been lucky - that’s three out of three), and we brush up our programme. As concert time approaches, we all feel a certain frisson. The Carnegie Hall holds such cachet and prestige it is hard not to feel overawed by it. The British equivalent would be the Wigmore Hall. However, without the merest bias, I can say the concert goes really well - perhaps the best yet - and the audience reacts very positively, both during the concert and at the reception afterwards. We even garner a new ‘superfan’, Anthony, who presents us with port, chocolates and his business card. He works for Continental (with whom we happen to be flying home tomorrow) as a technician, and offers to meet us at the airport and usher us through the fast line at security.

After a while meeting and greeting, Matthew, Angus and Don head uptown with Robert Besen, our American agent, for a drink and debrief. I have two friends in the audience, Joe and Jesse, and I go out for a beer and catch-up with them. But it is not a late night, seeing as we need to leave the hotel at 5.45am….

Wednesday Feb 23rd

 

We all manage to get ourselves out of bed before dawn, and our Supershuttle turns up, with a rather old school Russian driver. He gets us to Newark in good time, where Anthony meets us and is good to his word; we go through the official, and shorter, queue. Mercifully the flight is half-empty (or half-full, depending on your point of view, though I would say either is optimistic in this context), so we are all able to stretch out a bit, which I have to say makes the flight feel half as long. Travel karma is on the up. Some seven hours later we arrive in London and scatter to all corners.  Our US tour is complete for another year. 

So there you have it. I am sorry I can’t write like Dickens and, if I have made the touring lifestyle seem unglamorous, well, that’s because it is. But don’t be fooled - we still enjoy it.

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What am I listening to?

You are listening to Ave mundi rosa, a piece from the fourteenth-century, typically English in its use of sweet parallel harmonies. It is the latest in our ongoing series of recordings for Hyperion, a survey of English choral music from the late thirteenth to the early fourteenth centuries. You can hear more on the Hyperion website, read the engaging liner notes, and order or download tracks or the entire album in a number of formats.