France tour proves a complete all-round success

On tour with FYC, by Graham Noakes

Now back on English terra firma, it’s time to reflect on what an amazing six days we have just spent in Paris and the Dordogne.

In a busy but never frenetic programme put together with imagination and flair by current parent Sophie Budd, FYC had the opportunity to perform in four very different church acoustics, from the dramatic spaces of Notre-Dame in Paris to the small but perfectly-formed church of St Vaast in the Dordogne village of Villac.  And with plenty of opportunities in between for sightseeing, ball games and making Easter chicks in a chocolate factory in nearby Terasson (which also happens to be Sophie’s home town), everyone came home tired but extremely happy.

The choir consisted of 38 singers (35 girls, 3 boys) and the adult group comprised Sophie (as tour leader), together with Jo Tomlinson, Matthew Rickard, Sarah Burston, Alison Nicholls, Neil Ferris and Graham Noakes.

After an early start, leaving Farnham at 6.00am, we had a straightforward journey in bright sunshine, catching an earlier ferry and reaching Paris in late afternoon.  ‘Home’ for the first leg of the trip was the FIAP Jean Monet in the southern part of the city.  A cross between a youth hostel and a hotel, the accommodation was ideally designed for young groups such as FYC, including a self-service canteen and a large meeting room (complete with piano) where we could rehearse and chill.

After checking in and some much-needed fresh air and exercise in the nearby Parc Montsouris - with cakemaster Neil doubling as head of games - we returned for supper and then bed.   

Having discovered only the night before that our ‘tourist day’ coincided with the Paris Marathon - and that much of the city centre’s roads would be closed - several ‘Plan Bs’ were hurriedly hatched for the day.  As it turned out, our original ‘Plan A’ went surprisingly smoothly, with traffic flowing freely clockwise on the Paris périphérique taking us to Sacré Coeur without a hitch. (We saw a number of runners as we passed under one of the many bridges spanning the ring road.)

With glorious sunshine showing off the iconic Parisian landmark to perfect advantage,  this offered the ideal opportunity for group photoshoots.  We climbed up to the Basilica to get the spectacular views across the city, but our initial plan to busk near the entrance met with the clear disapproval of an armed soldier - a common (and surprisingly comforting) sight during our stay in the capital - so discretion took over and we sang several flights of steps further down, much to the delight of the many tourists.

After a brief walk through Montmartre, past the Moulin Rouge, we had an excellent lunch in a nearby restaurant and it was then off on a similarly traffic-free coach ride to the Eiffel Tour and boat trip on a Bateau Parisienne.  The day finished back at the hostel with supper and traditional soirée of songs and comic turns by our highly-talented youngsters.  But for the fact that two of our younger choir members unfortunately got stuck in the lift before supper, it would indeed have been just about the perfect day!               

The big day for all us!  Despite a strike on the Metro (in competition with London Underground?) threatening further traffic problems, these did not materialise and we arrived early for our rehearsal.  This gave us the chance to walk around inside Notre-Dame and take in the spectacular scale and grandeur of the cathedral.  It was then down into the bowels of the church to change and warm up, before emerging for our 25-minute concert spanning five centuries of sacred music.

However much Jo and the rest of us had been looking forward to this tour highpoint, nothing had truly prepared us for how special it was going to be.  As in Périgueux and Sarlat later in the week, the vast acoustic would have starkly shown up any imperfections of tuning and ensemble, but FYC rose to occasion magnificently, filling the cathedral with its spine-tinglingly beautiful sound.  To say Jo was happy with the choir’s performance would be a distinct understatement.

Having repeatedly preached to the choir the importance of always staying together, especially in crowded places, I managed to get detached from the group as the choir went back to get changed and so had to join the visiting parents outside to wait for the choir to emerge.  Not surprisingly, they found this highly amusing (and definitely Twitter-worthy!) but it did provide the opportunity to confirm how much they too had found this such a special and memorable event.

Then came the long journey down to the beautifully scenic Dordogne where we were to stay in the CIS (International Residential Centre) in Salignac. We effectively had the centre to ourselves and once again it was ideally-suited to our needs: with separate chalets and a central refectory, it proved a relaxing and well-located start-point for our activities over the next few days.  The staff were extremely accommodating throughout our stay and we certainly were not going to starve, with generous breakfasts, main meals and packed lunches.               

The morning was taken up with sightseeing in Sarlat, one of the prettiest towns in the region: in the afternoon we then had a tour of the internationally-renowned Bovetti chocolate factory, where everyone got to make their own chocolate Easter chick - as well as taking advantage of the highly-appealing shop!

On to the nearby village of Villac, where FYC was to give an evening concert in the striking little church of St Vaast.  A full rehearsal in the afternoon proved essential as Jo, Matthew and the choir battled to come to terms with a very tricky acoustic: time well-spent as it turned out, as the sound was spot-on during the performance given to a packed church.  The concert of sacred and secular music included solo performances by Tabitha Chapman, Hannah Larkin, Charlotte Gill and Amélie Budd and the appreciative audience showed its pleasure with a standing ovation - followed almost immediately with a second after the obligatory encore.       

We were made very welcome during our short stay, including a drinks and nibbles reception in the sale des fêtes (village hall) after the concert.  And we all got to meet Sophie’s mum!  The final - and completely unexpected - icing on the cake came as the church elders insisted on giving us the retiring collection, which we graciously accepted. 

An early start as we had a 75-minute journey to Périgueux where the choir gave another short recital in the cathedral.  Again the acoustic was astonishing, with the choir providing an especially magical moment in the climax of Maurice Duruflé’s motet, Tota Pulchra Es.  As we arrived, the church was filled with the glorious sound of an improvisation by the incumbent organist Christian Mouyen.  Impressed by the choir’s performance he invited FYC back to give a full concert and thanked us as we left in the best way possible with another improvisation especially for us.

After lunch by the river at Les Eyzies, it was on to Sarlat again for a shared Concert Spirituel with the local Ensemble Vocale de Sarlat, which finished with a joint performance of César Franck’s Panis angelicus.  Again the audience demanded more and FYC obliged with a repeat performance of Alexander Tilley’s In Flanders’ Fields, following an explanation of the words in French by our host choir’s conductor, Bernard Podevin.

Another short reception and it was back to Salignac for supper, packing and bed.    

A long day’s travel back to Calais almost came unstuck with a long delay in getting round Paris, but we made the (almost empty) 8 o'clock ferry with less than five minutes to spare. It was only when in the ship’s cafeteria that we learned this was in fact the last sailing of the day - something which we were glad we hadn’t known earlier when sitting in a Paris traffic jam! Just another piece of the jigsaw falling perfectly into place.    

Finally, a word about our coach and drivers.  As anyone who has been on an FYC tour will confirm, having a good rapport with the driver is essential to make it work well.  We were fortunate to have three great drivers over the six days: in Andy in particular - with us for almost all the time we were in France - we could not have asked for a more amenable and friendly companion who always as flexible as we needed him to be with a programme which almost inevitably required some tweaking each day.  (A Southampton supporter he even came to terms, if grudgingly, with Sophie’s admission that she was a Pompey fan!)       

In what was her first tour as FYC musical director, Jo was full of admiration for what the young singers achieved throughout the week, both individually and collectively.  So, all in all, a very happy tour, one which was successful both musically and socially and in which everyone worked hard and played hard to outstanding effect.

All roads led to Rome

Rome in April! What could be more attractive? The opportunity to visit iconic places previously only read about: the Sistine Chapel and Vatican, the Colosseum, Forum and Pantheon. Add to this the chance of ‘happening upon’ Bellini and Michelangelo statues and Caravaggio and Rafael paintings - and being able to test the marvellous acoustics of so many romantic places, with not only the appropriate repertoire in your head but the means to recreate it right then and there with your choir friends! 

Include the opportunity of singing to packed audiences in contrasting venues and to experience the privilege of singing in a Mass in the magnificent Basilica of St Peter’s in Vatican City and you have the makings of an unforgettable tour! Rome was experiencing sunny, warm Spring weather when the thirty-one choir members, supported by six staff, arrived. This helped immeasurably with moving the group around the busy capital city using the metro and on foot - by far the most effective modes of transport. For some choir members, so much walking came as a surprise but saved them from the excesses of pasta, pizza and ice-cream. (The choir were well-fed during this tour!) 

For David, Julia and myself, this was to be our 27th and final tour with FYC. Our combined touring expertise was supported by three other staff members. Assistant Director Jo Tomlinson took the role of pastoral care (when she wasn’t warming the choir up vocally!) and choir mum Sophie Budd, whose experience of taking teenagers abroad on language courses proved invaluable, organised the FYC uniform. Leading the adult team, and touring with FYC for the first time was Fiona Blair, a friend of Jo’s whose day job is working with students at Reading University. Fiona’s meticulous preparation coupled with her ability to dot the i’s and cross the t’s meant that there were few surprises other than those of which we could have done little to pre-empt. Rome also proved attractive to many of the families who decided to holiday at the same time as the choir tour and to attend FYC’s public concerts: one in a school (where the platform was shared with three Italian choral groups, two of which were from the Donna Olimpia Music School), the other in a church (Sant’ Eustachio, near the famous Pantheon).

On both occasions, the concert was delayed while extra chairs were found to accommodate the crush of people. The enthusiastic audiences certainly enjoyed the English choral sound and were impressed by the way the choir could switch from sacred to up-beat secular and folk songs with
seemingly natural ease.

And FYC didn’t just sing in concerts. They delighted tourists whenever they burst into song. After hearing the choir perform in Santa Maria Del Popolo, (home of wonderful paintings by Caravaggio and Raphael) a priest-in-charge told the young people “Caravaggio and Raphael created great art with brush and palette: you do so with your voices!”

Gillian Victor-Smith


Champions of Europe !!

In July 2015, FYC took part in the European Choir Games in Magdeburg, Germany.  Competing against choirs from all over the world, we came away with two gold medals and the title of Champion Children's Choir of Europe!!

The choir's winning programme included three of Ronald Corp's Four Elizabethan Lyrics, a work written for the choir in 1993 following its success in the 1992 Sainsbury's Choir of the Year Competition.

Irish Eyes were Smiling

In April 2014, FYC embarked on its first tour to Ireland, with concerts in Cork, Kells and Dublin.

Day 1 – Cork

An excited choir boarded the coach after being photographed by the Farnham Herald for an article to be published (on the front page) later that week. We were off on the first leg of our journey to Ireland. Southampton Airport was our first port of call. There was plenty of time to chat, eat lunch or have a Costa coffee and sing a few songs for our fellow travellers before boarding our flight to Dublin.

After a short flight we landed in Dublin and after locating all the luggage (with the aid of our bright yellow luggage labels) we were met by our courier, Anne, and our coach driver, Enda. As we drove through the lovely Irish countryside we experienced typical Irish weather – sunshine and (heavy) showers.

We stopped for our evening meal just outside Cork at the Silver Springs Moran Hotel Tivoli for a lovely meal (roast no.1), then continued our journey to Kinlay House, pausing at Tesco to buy provisions including lots of cake!

Before bedtime we had a chance to unpack uniform and meet to find out arrangements for the next day.

Day 2 – Cork

Following breakfast, the choir walked to the CIT Cork School of Music for a rehearsal while I stayed at the hostel and prepared the uniform for the evening concert. After a light lunch at CIT, FYC put on a magnificent concert to a packed hall. This was part of the Life Long Learning Festival and the audience spanned the age range including groups of school children, all of whom gave FYC their first standing ovation of the tour.

After that, it was a short coach journey back to the hostel for well-earned cake! Some of the choir had a short visit to a local sweet factory while others crammed in a bit of revision. It was then time to travel to Carrigaline for our evening concert with the Carrigaline Choral Group in the Church of Our Lady & Saint John. Following a short rehearsal we went across the road to the Carrigaline Court Hotel for our evening meal (roast no.2). Another excellent concert.

Day 3 – Dublin

Today we were off to Dublin, stopping en route at The Rock of Cashel. Our fantastic guide pitched the tour really well. We had the opportunity to sing in two of the buildings and learnt about round towers. After lunch in Cashel village, we had some retail therapy at the Dundrum Shopping Centre. The evening was spent at Bewley’s Hotel, where, following dinner (roast no.3) we had a Soirée. Members of the choir entertained us with singing, piano solo, juggling and musical theatre. It was a lovely evening followed by an early night.

Day 4 – Dublin

The morning was a guided coach tour of Dublin with our guide Irwin. We visited Trinity College and then headed to Christ Church Cathedral for a short rehearsal, lunch outside and a concert in the Cathedral. It was a lovely acoustic to sing in and a wonderful concert.

The rest of the afternoon was spent at leisure at the hotel before departing for St Columba’s Church in Kells for our evening concert. Following a short rehearsal, we ate our evening meal at the Vanilla Pod Restaurant (not a roast!). Another fantastic concert.

Day 5 – Home

After a late night, we were able to have a leisurely breakfast. On our way to the airport we stopped at the village of Howth in Dublin Bay, where the choir were able to go off and explore in groups. Before we knew it, we were back at Southampton and were surprised to see Brian our coach driver from Monday waiting for us. We had given him a CD on Monday and he’d been listening it to all week!

Alison & John Nicholls