Friends, flights and foreign policy

Hello again, dearest readers; long time, no ..write. I’m writing this from a plane (as is so often the case), this time flying from Washington D.C. to Chicago, from where we’ll be connecting on to Urbana, IL for a concert at the University of Illinois tomorrow evening of our programme ‘Finding Harmony: the Launch’, which is a kind of preview to our next major album and touring project coming out next year. 

We are frequent visitors to Washington D.C., and have fallen into a rather wonderful pattern of alternating between performing at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Georgetown, and Washington National Cathedral, from each year to the next. Last night we were singing at Georgetown in the wonderful concert series there, which feels like a sort of home for the group with its own dedicated audience whom we love to see each time we visit. Amongst that audience there’s always a handful of particularly notable people who come along to hear us sing, and last night was no exception. In fact, one section of last night’s audience was particularly fascinating to me because it brought together two totally different sections of my life in one bizarre package.

I was delighted, when arriving at the church, to find an old friend of mine from many years ago called Alex standing outside waiting to go in. I knew he lived out in D.C. but hadn’t clocked that he might come along to the concert. I told him that he should have got in touch so I could have arranged free tickets for him; I also informed him excitedly that Madeleine Albright — the former US Secretary of State — was coming to the concert and was a regular attendee of our performances there. Not in the slightest bit impressed by my bragging, he mentioned that he already had free tickets, as he was attending the concert as a guest of …Madeleine Albright, as he’s her teaching assistant at Georgetown University. 

Madeleine was Secretary of State under President Clinton in the 1990s, and is famous for her adept foreign policy as well as for being the first woman to hold that esteemed post. We met her after the concert for a chat, and got talking about Kosovo where we performed just over a month ago. To explain it rather simply, Kosovo was essentially saved from annexation by the Serbians in 1999, through a US-UK military intervention largely orchestrated by Madeleine. She enjoyed telling us about streets there which are named after her, as well as a generation of Kosovan women growing up, a high proportion of which are mysteriously named Madeleine! When we were out in Kosovo last month, we were singing at the Pristina Vocal Festival, which is a new festival, finding its feet within a developing artistic and cultural life in Kosovo’s capital. We mused with her last night about how without her work coordinating an intervention in the Balkans as Secretary of State, there is no way that the country would be in the position now to be building arts festivals and inviting international artists to perform. It was like, in that church vestry last night, both the earliest and the most recent chapters in the story of Kosovo’s struggles were brought into focus for a few minutes as we talked about a flourishing cultural scene which likely wouldn’t exist without her work. 

On a more sugary note, also at the concert last night was Jacqueline Mars — granddaughter of Frank Mars who founded the Mars chocolate company, to which she is now heiress. She’s closely involved in several artistic organisations in the Virginia and D.C. area, including the Washington Performing Arts and the Opera. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind me writing this here, but she had us in stitches last night, when we were standing around her for a photograph. The photographer got the camera ready and counted us in, ‘1, 2, 3…’ and when the six of us said ‘cheese’, Mrs Mars, in the driest of tones just said ‘sex’. I think the best photo would have been 3 seconds later as we were helpless with laughter. It must also be mentioned that it was not totally out of nowhere, as we’d previously talked about the smutty content of some madrigals by Orlandus Lassus. 

After the concert, we were really pleased also to catch up with some great supporters of the group, Kristi and Sandy, who help us out here and there on our USA tours and are totally selfless in their support of what we do. We also caught up with our friend Frank Albinder, who is a big cheese of the a cappella world in the USA; he’s a former member of the group Chanticleer, and is now closely involved with running and directing choral groups in and around the D.C. metropolitan  area. He recently became a member of the Advisory Board for our Global Foundation, and so feels like a part of our family out here in the States. 

Blimey; I’ve just looked up from the keyboard and realised this must be the longest blog I’ve ever written, and probably the longest you’ve read, you poor thing. I’m not done, though. I wanted briefly to cast back a few days to a wonderful time we had in New York City, over hallowe’en. We were there primarily to meet with our USA agents (Steph and Nicole from IMG Artists), and to record some live music for the radio station Sirius XM, for their holiday playlists as well as a dedicated interview for next year when our Finding Harmony album is released. But whilst there, we had chance to take in a bit of that magical city. Nick and I accidentally found ourselves in a costume parade, walking up sixth avenue in this kind of pageant, being photographed by thousands of people who were lining the streets. We’d very much set out to be part of the crowd lining the streets to look at the costumes, but navigated wrongly and ended up (totally uncostumed) as part of the parade. The looks of puzzlement followed by immediate disappointment as the crowds looked at us was quite the test of self-esteem, until we were able to escape the parade and slope off back to our hotel. 

I also really enjoyed catching up with a dear friend of mine from university called Charlotte. We were both at King’s College together in the same year, and became friends in our very first week. She comes from Berlin, and though she studies Economics at Cambridge, was instilled with a discerning taste in music by her parents. I remember her coming up to me once in college to show me a video she’d found of The King’s Singers, telling me how great she thought it was and me agreeing, without any sense at all that a few years later I’d be one of the people in those videos, and would be meeting up with her whilst on tour with that group. Charlotte’s now studying for her Masters at Columbia University in New York, and so it was great to have the chance to hang out with her and sample some of the city’s best ramen, in the East Village (recommendation: Ivan Ramen, 25 Clinton Street, NY). 

All in all, it’s been a very rewarding trip thus far, despite some slightly unusual geography dictating our travels! We’ve got another week to go before we head home, and there’s so much to look forward to in it. In particular, our final concert of the trip is at Stanford University in California. We’ll spend one day giving workshops and talks to students and choral groups from Stanford, and then the next day will do a preview performance of the official ‘Finding Harmony’ programme in their stunning Bing Concert Hall before hopping on a flight from San Fransisco back to London for a week of rest and recuperation before Chr***mas madness begins…


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