A rather bleary-eyed group gathered together at 3.00 am on Friday night/Saturday morning to set off for Portsmouth. Three double basses got prime seating at the front of the coach, and strapped in securely, the 37 players and partners and Arwen set off for Portsmouth. We left England on a grey Saturday morning and arrived at Caen on a grey Saturday afternoon. No change there. Coach driver Shawn got us safely to Place St Melaine in the centre of Rennes where we were greeted by our welcoming hosts, still smiling in spite of us being a good half hour late.
After a quick dispersal to various homes in and around Rennes we gathered at the wonderful “La Demeure d’Ogust” for a splendid gastronomic start to the visit. Drinks and canapés and a short welcome were followed by a three course meal in front of a large open fire and spit on which an exciting piece of pork was slowly turning. The only slight drawback that this came after about twenty hours of travel and little sleep so we were not at our best. After second helpings of delicious pork it was time for les cadeaux – a bottle of cidre and two bollee for each player – and this was followed by le grande quizze. This did help revive flagging spirits, especially the more competitive ones, as we struggled through cartoons of composers, esoteric questions about opera characters, and identifying tunes from extracts of scores in a small screen. Several sections of the quiz were mercifully cut so we were done before midnight.
Sunday morning was spent with host families, variously being taken to visit local places of interest, catching up on sleep and being given a leisurely lunch before meeting up at our first rehearsal venue, an industrial unit on the outskirts of town. Democratic seating was quickly organised among the strings, sharing desks with French counterparts. The wind made mutual arrangements, and then Schubert was under way. And of course the ‘how to conduct a rehearsal in two languages’ challenge. Marion’s bowing requests were met with complete incredulity from several string players, but we emerged, two movements later, hot and sweaty – it was quite cramped in there and apparently the choir was supposed to fit in somewhere too – with a burgeoning performance. The overhead doors opened to reveal the ‘snack break’ … trestle tables groaning with delicious homemade food prepared by choir members. Mmm. We did finally tear ourselves away, and now it was Eloi Marchand the French conductor’s turn to rehearse the Mendelssohn psalms. Somehow the choir did fit in. (Just to mention at this point that the winners of last night’s quiz was announced – Alfie and Stephen did a grand job at table 8 assisted a bit by Carol, Zoe and Francoise and we did enjoy our tin of bonbons.) Perhaps it was the wine, perhaps it was the heat or just simply the speed at which Eloi took Psalm 114 but the semiquavers were no joke. Psalm 42 with the lovely soprano, Anne-Laure Josse-Binet, was a real pleasure to work on.
The next morning we were up bright and early to set off at 8.15 for a tour of Mont St Michel. A well-organised system of shuttle buses took us from the car park to the entrance where we met our tour guide. He was clearly passionate about his subject and made for a very interesting tour. While waiting for tickets for a group of about 40 of us to be sorted we used the time to practise a madrigal and gave a passable rendition of ‘Now is the month of Maying’ to a bemused but appreciative group of tourists. We learned a lot of fascinating details about the history and construction of M S Michel, had time for lunch in the village and then emerged to a beautiful blue sky as backdrop to our final photos. The weather was very well organised, raining while we were on the coach or indoors, so we never needed our umbrellas. The return drive to Rennes was passed practising more madrigals, interspersed with requests from Arwen for ‘Twinkle twinkle’, ‘the wheels on the bus’ and such like, though with more harmony than melody she had a tough job to recognise them.
Then it was time for the dress rehearsal in Rennes cathedral. With a wonderfully resonant acoustic and long echo the Gabrieli a 15 sounded very impressive, despite lack of time to rehearse it the previous day. Coach driver Shawn turned his hand successfully to page-turning for Emma. Marion wisely ditched the other Gabrieli. Negotiating a move in cramped conditions, two languages and not enough brass would have been tricky to say the least. The choir sat listening to our Gabrieli, clapped loudly, then went off to warm up. Meanwhile we rehearsed the arias in Psalm 42, and waited. Eloi went through some of the dynamics he wanted, and finally the choir were ready. Detailed work followed. The semiquavers felt even faster than before and it was getting on for 10 pm when we finally got on to rehearsing Schubert. It was a long night.
Most of us were up and alert for our 10 am tour of the city the next day, and the rest joined for the official reception at the hotel de ville later on. The Mayor welcomed us warmly and made it clear to us that on our shoulders rested the job of preserving the European Union, having just had the results of the EU elections. Janet proved herself to be an efficient interpreter, relaying Rachel’s words into flawless and fluent French.
In the afternoon people drifted away for lunch, shopping, resting and semiquaver practice, returning to the cathedral for a 7.30 warm up (minus most of the French players) in readiness for an 8.30 start. In fact it was nearer 9, and a packed cathedral heard Rachel deliver an impressive speech in French. Marion led us through a beautifully crafted Schubert, taking the echo into account, and by then had completely won over even the more sceptical ‘you let her choose your bowing!’ string players. Anne-Laure captivated the audience in Psalm 42 and the semiquavers were actually quite manageable in Psalm 114. We even got an encore. There was a small reception with a few speeches after the concert, washed down with cidre et cassis, and it was time for our last night before returning to England . Most of us went home to sleep, Aidan found some friendly girls at a bar to help him while away a few hours.
And so we gathered at the Place St Melaine where we had arrived four days before to restore the double basses to their prime seating position, and bid our lovely hosts a fond farewell, talk already turning to the next visit. Marion had already left for Munster. Rachel counted us onto the coach in her expert and organised way, and breathed a very huge sigh of relief when she knew she had got her flock safely and in time to Le Havre. The next few hours passed with card games, edible food from the cafeteria, and new friendship groups exchanging stories. Emma turned her heel (in her sock-knitting, not an injury), Nigel posted more pics on Facebook, and land was finally sighted. Shawn left us just before Honiton, and we reached our waiting cars, taxis and lifts as predicted, at 12.40.
It was a fantastic trip, no real hitches despite a few mislaid items during the course of the five days, and a huge thank you to our hosts for their warmth and generosity, to the chefs Marion and Eloi for musical leadership, to the patience of the family members who came with, to Arwen for being a delightful little girl, and above all to Rachel, for her mammoth organisation.