Canada Council Grant sends Nick Halley to England

Jul 25, 2011

Nick blogs about his time abroad:
Monday, July 25, 2011

Last Thursday I returned from what was truly an unforgettable month in England. While I can’t take the time now to adequately describe it all, I would like to try (at the prompting of our unstoppable Managing Director) to set the scene a bit:

Thanks to the Canada Council for the Arts, and following a circuitous route with gigs in Vancouver, New Zealand and eventually England via Singapore, this – my second study period in England – turned into a month-long affair. I devoted most of my time to Winchester Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. In both, (as in Cambridge, where I snuck in an extra jaunt for inspiration and education with a combined King’s/John’s service and rehearsals with Stephen Layton at Trinity), the brilliant musicians and staff were extremely welcoming and helpful. This is not easily achieved at a place like Westminster Abbey, where thousands of congregants, tourists, and visitors (mostly of the eminent variety) come through every day. Particularly since the Royal Wedding, there has been a line of people trying to get into Evensong, from one end of the Abbey to the other and out the great west entrance…every day.

First things first. My week in Winchester was a memorable, beautiful experience (the stunning 11th century Norman building helps) with the seemingly impossible amount of music-making that occurs in these places where two rehearsals and one Evensong service occur every day of the week, plus the normal round of three Sunday services (Matins – in this case sung by the girls’ choir – Eucharist, and Evensong), and the odd concert thrown in (while I was in Winchester, the choir was preparing for the Southern Cathedrals Festival – three concerts over the weekend). The boys are clearly having a grand time in rehearsal with Director of Music Andrew Lumsden. They are your standard kids: wacky, hilarious, and full of character, all of which finds its way into the sound that Andrew gets from them – it is an impressive, colourful one – and of course they are familiar with an astonishing amount of fabulous music.

Then to Westminster Abbey, where everyone – the verger, the staff, the school headmaster, the Dean himself, and especially the music department – made me feel as if what I was doing there was something of import. I was so struck by the Abbey for this – it is not easy to maintain such an atmosphere, in such a place. One of the interesting things about the great tradition of church music in England is that yes: it has been going on for centuries in much the same format, but has it always been good? In fact, no. There have been some seriously rough patches and the 19th century seems to have been one. The tradition of men and boys choirs (and eventually mixed choirs) was saved by a few great musical personalities (particularly at King’s and John’s, Cambridge) around the middle of the 20th century and it has been building ever since. In talking with the Abbey’s Director of Music James O’Donnell, it’s clear that he feels his responsibility to be that of consistently bringing the absolute greatest possible music into the hearts and minds of singers and listeners alike – and that’s what they do there, day in and day out.

The specific musical highlights are far too great to list here – I kept bulletins from the daily services, which is the only way to keep track. I have a plethora of great memories of rehearsals, services, concerts, lunch at the schools with the boys, chatting with their teachers about their exceptional educational experience, listening to Walton’s wild Mag & Nunc while watching parents pretend they’re not crying their way through their boys’ graduation service, and looking around while thousands of stunned tourists listen to the great music of 8 centuries, cranked out by the Abbey’s boys, men, and brilliant organists, every day.

I’m finally back, playing and teaching at the Boxwood Festival in Lunenburg, and I must say how grateful I am to be able to call this beautiful place home (there’s just nowhere like Nova Scotia), and I look forward to another year of great music, at King’s, with Capella Regalis.