The first ever St John’s Voices international tour began in fine style at 5.15AM on the 5th of December. Despite the eye-watering hour, we traipsed through the airport with a spring in our collective step.
Upon arrival in Austria, we took the bus to our hotel (a lovely establishment with an intriguing chalet decor theme) and set off for our first meal in the city. We stumbled upon a Chinese restaurant where we were offered a variety of tantalising choices.
We then ventured into the heart of Wien to begin our first rehearsal in the Reformierte Stadtkirche. We were also (thrillingly!) recorded to appear on Austrian radio or a feature including an interview with Choir Director, Graham, and our rendition of ‘Away in a Manger’.
After the rehearsal, we enjoyed dinner in a subterranean restaurant, complete with authentic Wiener Schnitzels and a round of fine brews – the first of many, as it transpired.
Day two continued the theme of early mornings as we boarded the bus to our next concert destination, Melk Abbey, at 7AM. Whilst the exterior of the Abbey was imposing (bounded by high cliffs on three sides), the Baroque interior was exceedingly intricate. The monastery has been in use for over 900 years and has, during this time, hosted multiple monarchs.
Following our performance of the Vierne at Mass, we were given a tour of the Abbey and museum. The design of the museum was loaded with symbolism, the very architecture echoing the meaning of the exhibition – a particular favourite being the uneven floor symbolising the ebb and flow of the Abbey’s fortunes over time.
Having digested the spiritual feast of the museum and Abbey, we then headed into town for a different kind of feast – pizza. After demolishing these cheesy delights, it was then back up to the Abbey for a recital, which St John’s Voices began with a mix of motets and carols.
Following in our considerable wake were a number of groups, including a visiting Baptist Church choir from Illinois. After taking one last selfie in front of the extravagant frescoes and saintly relics, it was back on the bus to central Vienna for some free time. The majority of the choir followed their noses straight to the Gluhwien stalls in the Christmas markets for a delicious Viennese pastry/calorie bomb.
The following day was spent mainly in central Vienna, with performances in St Stephen’s Cathedral and the Christmas markets. The former (known as ‘Stephansdom’ in German) is probably most notable for its richly patterned, ornate roof and steep towers, under which we gathered for a quick warm up before the concert. Having serenaded several bemused tourists, the choir was then ushered inside to begin the concert.
After a rousing programme of carols and sacred music, we enjoyed more time in Vienna until it was time to hit the Christmas markets. Singing in these markets was a unique experience, with the plummeting temperatures lessened by a hefty dose of Christmas cheer and the prospect of warm Gluhwein afterwards.
In the centre of a city so saturated with culture, one could scarcely stroll through a side street without stumbling across a museum or gallery (or cake shop). However, on the penultimate day, we piled in to the bus once more for a trip away from this epicentre of culture to the equally enriching palace of Schönbrunn. This 1,441 room Baroque building was one of the principal residences of Emperor Franz Joseph, and we were able to see the paraphernalia of his courtly life preserved in exacting detail. We were all drawn towards the Gloriette upon the hill to enjoy the magnificent view (and photo opportunity).
For our last concert of the tour, it was back to the Reformierte Stadtkirche we had first rehearsed in. After our final performance of the Sussex carol, there were enthusiastic indications for an encore and fatigue was forgotten for a few rousing choruses of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’.
The last full day of the trip then ended – perhaps inevitably – in the pub and, with schnitzel and 1-litre tankards of beer, we hailed the international success of St John’s Voices’ tour.
The Austrian jolly drew to a close with a free morning spent in Vienna – getting one last hit of culture and warm ‘Punch’ or hurriedly buying souvenirs from one of the ubiquitous Mozart-themed kiosks. As we boarded the bus one final time, there was certainly a sense of pride that we had succeeded in our first expedition overseas.
Many thanks must be given to Rayburn Tours for organising such a varied and enriching trip!
Written by Victoria Campion, St John’s Voices