Well, we had heard that these choir trips were great fun, and this year some of us tried it for the first time. The first part was landing at Blagnac airport, Toulouse, collecting the hire car from a crafty English expat pretending to be French, and driving the forty or so kilometres via Alan and Aurignac to our villa in a nearby hamlet. Five of us were renting and two had gone ahead of us by car all the way, only to find the place locked and no-one to assist. By the time the three of us arrived the house had been opened, cleaned and food purchased: good lesson for the future – don't get there first!
Sunday was exploration day, discovering the village of Alan, where we would rehearse, and the small medieval town of Aurignac, where we were to sing. Alan has some fine buildings – indeed rather disproportionally fine for a village, but these fine houses came about as a result of the Bishop's palace in the village, where we were extraordinarily fortunate to be invited by Mme Mayotte Magnus-Lewinska to practise every morning. This had been arranged by Jim and Roddy, residents of Alan and the origin of this trip. Everywhere we went we saw notices of the concert by the Summertown Singers of Oxford. How hard they had worked.
The entrance to the Bishop's Palace
Aurignac has a number of derelict buildings, as is common in the area, but also some beautiful restored ones; we enjoyed visiting the ancient fortified church where we were to sing, and then had a long, impromptu, excellent lunch on the balcony of the Cerf Blanc restaurant.
Lunch at Le Cerf Blanc restaurant
Rehearsals every morning at the Bishop's palace were a joy, and were followed by excellent coffee and cakes at Jim and Roddy's afterwards. Duncan was in great form, the group was very relaxed and the atmosphere very congenial as we chatted on at length. There were around 30 of us, some singles, some couples, some with just one singing, and mostly we stayed in small groups in nearby houses. One group entertained us to a party on the Wednesday evening at a lovely hillside house owned by a charming Dutch couple.
Coffee in Roddy and Jim's garden
One thing we noticed with some surprise: the locals seemed to like the Brits! Roddy explained that when he and Jim had moved to Alan some 25 years ago there had only been some 10 or so British families in the area (radius of 30 km), but now there were around 250. Most of these had restored old and decrepit buildings, and had added to the local economy as well as becoming part of the community by activities and by speaking French.
While the music was coming together well, we used the afternoons to visit various places of interest. My group much enjoyed seeing the high quality pottery in the village and a few local historic sites. Best of all was St Bertrand de Comminges, a beautiful medieval hill city with Roman ruins, a wonderful church, good restaurants and a shop that housed the last remaining family-owned umbrella manufacturer in France. Our group found these wonderful umbrellas irresistible and bought three of them, to show off proudly should it ever rain in Oxford.
The cloisters at St Bertrand des Comminges
The church was packed for performance on Friday; the first half was the more sober, including Byrd's Four Part Mass and Tallis's O Nata Lux. These were enthusiastically received, but the secular second half seemed to please them even more, including a wonderful cuckoo performance by Julie Harris in When Daisies Pied, and the solos of John McLeod in Deep River and Roddy in The Unseen Comrade. Several learned listeners kindly said that they wished that the programme had been longer. We then retired to a post-op party down the hill at a magnificent house owned by Simon, an English friend of Jim and Roddy.
As we flew back early on the Saturday we reflected on a holiday with so many great ingredients: good company; good food and wine; beautiful countryside and ancient buildings; good weather; goodwill of the locals; and most importantly, good music and singing, well appreciated by the audience. Thank you Duncan for your marvellous leadership. Roll on next year.