Tuesday 5 August 2014

First performances and fine food - On tour to Maastricht

St Janskerk, Maastricht
St Janskerk, Maastricht
St. Janskerk in Maastricht, the Netherlands, is one of the two churches on the large square, the Vrijthof. With its distinctive red tower it sits next to the larger and older foundation of St. Servatus. St. Janskerk was originally built by the monks of St Servatus so the people of Maaxtricht could worship separately and leave the monks to worship in peace (!) In the 17th century St Janskerk was given to the Protestants while St Servatus remained Catholic. A situation which could only arise because Maastricht had two overlords, the Roman Catholic bishop of Liege and the Protestant Duke of Brabant. (The historically minded opera lovers will realise that Brabant is where Wagner's Lohengrin is set).

St Janskerk was the venue for London Concord Singers concert in Maastricht, so on Saturday 2 August the choir, with me as one of the two tenors, conducted by Malcolm Cottle, sang a programme which included the first Netherlands performance of Judith Bingham's The Very Distant Days (a work that London Concord Singers premiered on 24 July), plus music by Cecilia McDowall, RVW, Bloch, Stanford, Victoria and Weelkes.

The church has been adapted for modern worship and the congregation sit in chairs facing a podium placed at the centre of the church's North wall, so oriented 90 degrees to usual. This meant that the audience surrounded the choir on three sides and were all rather close.

In the UK, I provide spoken introductions to the music at London Concord Singers concerts. As Judith Bingham's piece was new and unusual, setting words by Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens, we decided to risk having spoken introductions. I spoke slowly and, having got a laugh from the audience in my opening words, judged that sufficient could follow me. This was the case as a number of the audience came up to me afterwards and thanked me for speaking slowly and comprehensibly.

The choir had taken the risk of promoting the concert remotely without anyone on the ground in Maastricht, so it was a relief that we had an audience at all, never mind one which was such a good size and so enthusiastic.

Interior of the Basilica of Our Lady Star of the Sea, Maastricht from the choir loft
Interior of the basilica
from the choir loft

After exertions at the concert and putting the church back to rights ready for Sunday morning service, we returned to one of the many cafes on Vrijthof to drink beer and eat. One of the delights of such trips is being able to try out local cuisine, and catch up with friends in the choir.

Sunday morning saw the choir back on duty. A short walk from our hotel, through the winding streets of the old town, passed lots of interesting small shops, took us to the Basilica of Our Lady Star of the Sea, a Romanesque church dating from the 11th and 12th centuries. We entered round the back, through building works, to find our rehearsal room whilst the 10am Latin mass took place. Once this had finished we were able to enter the basilica, catching the organist Hans Leenders playing Bach on the Basilica's historic organ.

We sang at the 11.30am mass, singing from the organ loft which gave us a wonderful birds eye view of proceedings. We sang Victoria's Missa O quam pulchra es, along with the motet on which it was based, also by Victoria, and Peter Philips; Ave Verum. It is always a rather special event, singing renaissance polyphony in the context for which it was written and and especial privilege being able to do so in a wonderful historic church like the basilica, Of course this was not the end of weekend, there was much exploring of Maastricht to be done and of course, being choral singers, plenty of eating and drinking too.

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