When I mentioned I was thinking about taking more than one singing holiday this year, people said I should go for it while I could. What were they trying to tell me? Were my travelling or singing days numbered? I can’t imagine no longer being able to waltz away to some glorious European destination for a choral fix in the sun, but perhaps that time will come sooner than I’d like. Duly motivated, I set off for Toledo in Spain for this year’s first Run By Singers holiday, with another to look forward to in the autumn.
What a lovely city. Medieval, mellow-stoned and manageable. Toledo has bags of character and much more culture than you really have time for when you’re in rehearsals for five hours a day. I made sure to visit the huge, ornate Cathedral, and followed the El Greco trail around his adopted town. But mostly I just enjoyed exploring in the shade of the narrow cobbled streets, buff-coloured canopies like endless dust sheets slung between buildings. Sumptuous banners and tapestries were being hung from upper balconies in preparation for Corpus Christi later in the month, but spectacular processions weaving their way through a maze of steep inclines must be left to my imagination.
What we did get during our week was plenty of singing, spanning six centuries of choral music by Spanish and English composers. Tuition as always was excellent. Far beyond simply getting the notes and dynamics right, there were valuable lessons in poise, buoyancy and forward energy, so that we could aim for performance with style. I learned a great deal from director Peter North about creating the right space in the mouth and vocal tract to achieve the desired sound, and to sustain it.
One of our performance pieces rang more than a few bells on the sustainability front: Ward Swingle’s setting of Tony Vincent Isaacs’ poem Give Us This Day. The sensitive text is a celebration of the natural world through the seasons, punctuated with a refrain of Give us this day that we may see the beauty before our eyes. Give us this day that we may cherish the earth before it dies. Topical and poignant. I found myself singing it as I took a peaceful walk one afternoon along the River Tagus that skirts the foot of the town. Storks and herons made graceful forays now and then against a backdrop of shocking pink oleander and a multitude of greenery, and smaller birdlife kept up an incessant harmonious chatter.
Before our Saturday evening concert at the Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes, we rehearsed Give Us This Day in the cloisters, singing to the orange trees in the tranquil garden. Could the emotional impact get any more intense, I wondered, noting that it’s impossible to sing with a lump in your throat. But when we sang for the packed audience in the Monasterio there was a definite connection. They may not have understood every English word, but I sensed that we communicated. Long may the singing continue.