Bloxham School Chapel Choir Sing across Rome
Bloxham School Choir took part in a once in a lifetime trip to Rome at the end of October to sing in the Pantheon, the Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and the St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City. Read the highs and lows of this trip written by Mr David Best:
What most members of the choir wanted, after six weeks of term and a day of inter-house sport, was possibly a long lie-in and a relaxing start to the October Half Term break. However, by 2.30am on Sunday 20th October, the coach had left the Main Arch and was heading towards Gatwick Airport, along with thirty-two excited pupils and six members of the teaching staff (four choir members, one organist and James Ramm, our distinguished Choirmaster).
The Easyjet flight to Rome left on time and, even according to the less-confident flyers, was fairly smooth. Being on the flight with three sets of Bloxham parents gave an early indicator of the level of parental support that we would receive during the five days on tour. Having landed and found our coach, the journey into central Rome was relaxed and we could take in the sights that flashed by. It was clear from day one that we were to be blessed with excellent weather, with barely a cloud in the sky throughout the entire trip.
Once we sorted the rooms at the Hotel Cervia, within a stones’ throw of the main rail Termini, we met up with Miss Woodward (who had made her own travel arrangements) and headed towards our first concert venue, San Silvestro in Capite. Before our participation in the afternoon Mass, everyone had an hour or so to wander around the local shops to find some food and soak up the weather, language, architecture and culture of Rome. The Mass was conducted in Italian with parts of the service, not those involving the Bloxham choir, accompanied by a guitarist. Given the early start and lack of sleep, the choir performed well, singing Ubi Caritas, by Ola Gjeilo as well as the Communion in F, by Harold Darke. The walk back to the hotel was slightly longer than anticipated and everyone was ready for their evening meal at the local Ristorante Tre Archi.
Monday started in bright sunshine as the choir headed for an hour’s practice in the chapel of a local hotel. Today was a big day for the Bloxham tour party as they knew that St Peter’s Basilica awaited their arrival for a 5pm service. Everything had to be spot-on and the tension/excitement was obvious throughout the day. We used the Metro to travel towards the Vatican, with a tour of the Castel Sant’Angelo to begin the day. This is a remarkable fortress that once protected the Pope in times of danger; a covered passageway still connects it to the Vatican. We then walked to the Vatican Museum and had a guided tour of the treasures contained within. The entire tour party changed from shorts and T-shirts into smart uniform and suits, with robes, and made their way to the entrance to the Basilica.
It was here that we met our first real problem on the tour as, even with all the correct paperwork available, the security guard would not let us through. We were sent from one entrance to another, but on every occasion were blocked from entering the Basilica. At least our high spirits were maintained by the sound of a raised voice from the crowd of onlookers proclaiming “Oi, Harry Potter, get to the back of the queue!” Not until ten minutes after the service had begun, and various irate parents had exited the Basilica to try and resolve the problem, did we finally pass the barrier. It was a comical yet frantic scene as the choir, with flowing robes, ran from the back of the crowded Basilica towards the choir stalls. Within moments of taking our seats Dr Ruck, playing on a completely unfamiliar organ, and the choir, still out of breath, stood to perform in majestic surroundings.
Perhaps one memory that will remain from the time in Rome was the choir’s ability to perform to such a high standard, given the problems that had threatened to de-rail the tour only minutes earlier. The pieces sung were Mozart’s ‘Ave Verum’, Gjeilo’s ‘Ubi Caritas’ and Oculi Omnium by Charles Wood. Perhaps as a sign of how well the group had performed, given trying circumstances, we were allowed to stand on the main altar steps for a photoshoot after the service. Only at this point did it become obvious to all, quite how many parents had made the trip to Rome to support their sons, daughters and the choir as a whole.
A short walk saw us arrive at a lovely pizzeria, in a non-touristy part of the city, found earlier in the day by Mrs McCaffrey. A wonderful evening was had by all, enhanced by being joined by Mr Batten and Isacc Spring, an OB currently residing in Rome. By the time everyone had got back to the hotel they were exhausted and ready for bed, particularly as the next day held the thrill of singing in the Pantheon.
Tuesday was another sunny day that started with a short practice at the same venue as the day before. This performance was to be more of a concert, with the choir, and Harmonix, performing a large and varied repertoire. Another Metro ride took us towards some of the ancient ruins in Rome, with a tour arranged to see the Forum, the Palatine Hill and the Colosseum. Mr Ramm and Mr Best spent the day dragging suitcases around Rome, filled with music and choir folders. Unfortunately, the cases were not allowed past the barriers, forcing the two exhausted members of staff to seek refreshments in a local café.
Everyone met up at Piazza Della Rotonda, outside the front of the Basilica of Santa Maria ad Martyres, better known as the Pantheon, dressed and ready to perform. Here the tour met its second glitch when the promised portable organ (the main organ was being refurbished) was nowhere to be seen. A few frantic phone calls to the tour company resulted in an organ being found for our concert, but with it came a very short extension cable. The result was that the rather quiet organ was behind the choir, a large number of chatty tourists filled much of the building and it was very difficult to get the organ, choir and conductor all in sync! The vast array of items performed were ‘O Thou the central orb’, ‘Locus Iste’, ‘Be still my soul’, ‘If Ye Love Me’, ‘And I saw a new heaven’, ‘I will sing with the spirit’, ‘There is a season for everything’, ‘Cantique de Jean Racine’, ‘Ave Verum’, ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ and ‘Evening Hymn’. The Harmonix group also performed ‘Steal Away’, ‘The Lamb’ and ‘God be in my head’.
Singing ‘There is a season for everything’ was particularly special as the composer, Ian King, had written the piece especially for the choir tour and had also travelled to Rome to hear its first public performance. This was a tremendous experience as the choir were very exposed and were battling with a noisy environment, but their performance attracted many visiting tourists to stop and listen. Musical performances rarely take place in the Pantheon and so the pupils felt honoured to have had the opportunity to perform in such a public and impressive venue. A quick post-concert walk took us to another pizzeria, this time for a pizza buffet; not quite “all you can eat”, but after the sixth large pizza arrived everyone was full-to-the-brim.
Having had two major performances to prepare for, everyone was rather looking forward to a slightly lower key affair on Wednesday morning at the Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Little did we know before arriving that it is the largest Catholic Marian church in Rome, from which size it receives the appellation "major", and that except for a few priests and the basilica's archpriest, the canopied high altar is reserved for use by the Pope alone. Though only a short walk from the hotel, there was no time to practice before the morning Mass began. Luckily, the acoustics were excellent and many of the best recordings were made at this service. We had an opportunity to perform ‘There is a season for everything’ again and, after the official service had ended, the priest allowed the choir to perform any pieces that they wished. The music created in this venue was as good as anything the choir had produced in many years and it brought the musical element of the tour to a fitting climax. The rest of the day was spent shopping and being given a tour around the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain and the Piazza Navona. The evening was spent in yet another small pizzeria, bringing the tour to a fun-filled conclusion, with conversations revolving around the fabulous music produced by a marvellous group of singers.
Dr Ruck played on four unfamiliar organs, with no chance to practice on any of them beforehand (not that anyone listening would have known) and demonstrated just how lucky Bloxham is to have him as their accompanist. Four other members of the teaching staff, Mr Best, Miss Hunt, Ms Manning and Mrs McCaffrey all sang with the choir and thoroughly enjoyed the experience of performing in some of the best European music venues.
This tour would not have happened without the planning, expertise, drive and enthusiasm of Mr Ramm, our choirmaster. He believed in the choir’s ability to perform pieces that many thought impossible, and the end result was a tour with multiple memories to cherish.
Lastly, the pupils deserve congratulations for their excellence at each of the four venues. This is a group that has been improving for many years and this was the culmination of hundreds of hours of practices and concerts.