D-Day 70: The Armed Man Project, Normandy (Part VI)

The day dawned dreary and grey following the previous night’s storm. Breakfast had a different ambience than normal, for two members of our party were absent, having had to hot foot it back to Blighty for a performance of ‘Peter Grimes’ at Grange Park. They were driven to the ferry terminal by the indomitable Andy Baker in the early hours.

The inevitable late nights, given the 9/10pm concerts were starting to take their toll on us all and the mood was a little subdued over the croissants. The resilience of musicians is amazing though, so the lure of architectural wonders aplenty – as yet not fully explored – and the exciting array of chocolate shops at our disposal, alongside those of rather elegant French fashion, shoes, bags, cheeses and aperitifs did not allow our joie de vivre to be masked for long.

A particularly noteworthy lunch was savoured at Le Bouchon du Vaugueux during which we each vocalised at length our appreciation of the Carpaccio of Beef, Snails served with Chicken, Turbot, Pork cooked many ways and an array of desserts too splendiferous to describe – not to mention the particularly light but fine rose which titillated the taste buds as we sat in the shade of the parasol contemplating the wonders of French cuisine, art, and way of life in general.

Stain glassed windows of the 13th Century Roman Catholic Cathedrale Notre Dame de Sees

Suitably revived and with energy stocks renewed, we travelled to the beautiful town of Sees with our French colleagues, some 50 miles SE of Caen and 100 miles due West of Paris, later that afternoon. There is mention of this town dating back as far as the 5th century. The air was warm and the skies blue as we alighted from the buses to view at once the exquisite facade of the venue for the evening concert, the 13th Century Roman Catholic Cathedrale Notre Dame de Sees. There was a special feel about this place from the outset.

The cathedral, with its two 230ft spires, is a superb example of Norman Gothic architecture, and is built on a more human scale than some. The stained-glass windows and two rose windows are magnificent in colour and design.

 

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BSO Community Musician Andy Baker presents his macaroons

It soon became clear in rehearsal that the acoustics were superb. As musicians, food is never far from our minds so we had gone (unnecessarily as it transpired) to Sees armed with salami baguettes and the like as well as fine morsels of patisserie from one of the finest bakers in town. However, our wondrous hosts provided extraordinary vittles culminating in the lightest macaroons – some containing an almost vermilion hued filling – mini eclairs and a wide selection of fruit – and we’re not talking apples and oranges here but rather apricots, cherries, dates and figs. Oh, and all washed down with cider and perry for choir and orchestra as a matter of course.

Something happened that night. Something came together. Everybody was so relaxed and happy, the atmosphere was buzzing, the cathedral was packed with people, young and old, who had queued in snaking fashion some time before the event to be assured of a seat. The choir sang with strength and conviction yet also with subtlety and beauty. The natural acoustics of the building allowed the sounds to live and resound while the white of the stone allowed the tastefully chosen, ever changing coloured lighting to enhance to the full the emotional impact of both the music and the often desolate images shown.

Crowds flocked to the Cathedral to secure a seat

The accompanying film had been cleverly altered to incorporate footage from the Sees area which related to 1944, making it all the more poignant. This performance, despite being the fourth of our trip, was highly emotional. We all felt it. To the left and right of me colleagues were quietly wiping the tears from their faces, as were members of the audience facing us, as we began to feel, with the people of Sees, something of what they had gone through 70 years ago.

The Mass we are playing during these D-Day Celebrations, ‘The Armed Man’, by Karl Jenkins, has spoken to so many people. I will confess that I have not previously been a huge fan of the piece. However, the music so obviously speaks to people when played with commitment, compassion and integrity. It was a privilege for all of us to be able to be a part of this event in Sees particularly, and is something that neither I, nor my colleagues, shall ever forget.

Elizabeth Drew
Clarinet

D-Day 70: The Armed Man Project, Normandy (Part V)

Largest amphibious landing….30 miles of beaches assaulted by allied forces…. 

For the fourth day in a row I blearily reach for the TV control to wake myself up listening to the world news. It strikes me how, as our little tour progresses, we find ourselves increasingly caught up and involved in the incredible strength of French feeling as this country remembers the 20,000 Normandy citizens who died in the D-Day landings. As I lie listening I learn that more French citizens died during this time than British were killed during the blitz.

Church of St Jean

Church of St Jean

Tomorrow Vicky Berry (second violin) and I will check out at 6.45 to catch the early ferry back to Portsmouth as we are both playing in Peter Grimes with the rest of the BSO at Grange Park Opera tomorrow night. We will then return to Cherbourg on Monday morning to rejoin our French friends in ORBN for the final performance of The Armed Man (We reckon that we will both spend more than 20 hours in the English Channel this week!) I need to be ready to leave early, so I hastily pack my case for tomorrow with jeans (somewhat tighter now) together with concert black, wine for husband, T shirt for son and Calvados for me, and wander out into the hot sunshine.

Close to our hotel is the church of St Jean, which happens to be right in the middle of the district of Caen that was most heavily bombarded. Although parts of the church were seriously damaged, it miraculously remained standing whilst all around it lay absolute destruction.

To this day the tower perilously leans slightly at an angle, and we just have time to wander around this beautiful church between lunch and meeting Milko for our afternoon departure to Saint Mere Eglise.

Due to general D-Day traffic chaos we have thankfully allowed plenty of time for our journey, and as we crawl into Saint Mere Eglise amongst a sea of camper vans, tents, army jeeps (some of them broken down), real soldiers, pretend soldiers, children dressed as soldiers etc, we become increasingly aware of the truly momentous nature of this occasion.

Saint Mere EgliseThe village of Saint Mere Eglise lies just inland from Utah beach. It is twinned with Sturminster Marshall, a village which, incidentally, is only a couple of miles down the road from my own home in the Tarrant Valley. During the night of 5 June 1944, an American parachutist became caught on the church tower in the village and hung there for hours. He apparently escaped death by playing dead until danger had passed, and to this day his unfortunate landing is represented by a dummy, his billowing parachute caught in the tower above.

The whole area in front of the covered stage is a forest of food tents, beer tents, and a blaze of military uniforms of numerous nationalities. We stand, staring in the brilliant sunshine to take it all in, ….”Penny!!…Philippa!!…” and turn, astonished to see our friends and BSO choir members Andrew and Penny Bellars making their way through the crowd.

How lovely to bump into staunch BSO supporters when least expected! Andrew Bellars kindly takes us into the beautiful old church of Saint Mere Eglise, and points out the vivid modern stained glass window depicting the Virgin Mary surrounded by parachutists and planes.

Philippa Stevens

Philippa Stevens

Our audience this evening appears to number into the thousands; as I sit on the platform, as far as the eye can see are crowds of people standing to listen to us perform The Armed Man, and to watch the accompanying film that so effectively enhances the meaning behind the music and words of this work, depicting the cruelty of war, death, pain and ultimately arriving at peace.

I enjoy looking out as we play on what is now a warm and balmy evening, and have a perfect birds eye view of the dummy soldier hanging by his parachute from the old church tower. As dusk settles around the old church, and Aurore (the principal cello of ORBN) begins to play the hauntingly beautiful cello solo in the Benedictus with such exquisite serenity, I reflect that to share a desk with her this week has been a real delight and, for me, has been one of the high points of the tour.

My french is, frankly, quite appalling, but music is its own language; to make new friends without the need for spoken words, to be included as one with this welcoming orchestra in such a meaningful commemoration is something that I will carry back with me to my musical life only a very short distance away, on the other side of the channel.

Philippa Stevens
BSO Cellist

D-Day 70: The Armed Man Project, Normandy (Part IV)

Day 4

Abbaye aux Hommes, where the Queen is having lunch today with President Obama

Abbaye aux Hommes, where the Queen is having lunch today with President Obama

A gloriously sunny day in Caen today. Some of the musicians decided some sight-seeing was in order before the rehearsal and concert so we set off for Abbaye-aux- Hommes where William the Conquerer was buried – actually, just his thigh bone was buried.

In the hope such a piece of history be left alone, the Abbaye became a place of retreat for the inhabitants of Caen when the Allies started bombing the Germans. Slightly harrowing, you can still see gun shot marks on walls where civilians had been shot when the city was held by the Germans.

We walked the beautiful streets of Caen to find some food as there wasn’t to be time between rehearsal and concert. Food is always foremost on a touring musician’s mind, and we certainly haven’t been lacking in fantastic grub.

The ORBN 'Lighthouse' in Mondeville, Caen

The ORBN ‘Lighthouse’ in Mondeville, Caen

After une petite snoozette we set off for Lisieux Cathedral for concert number two. We met the l’Orchestre Regional de Basse-Normandie (ORBN) bus at their beautiful rehearsal rooms and all instinctively migrated to our normal BSO seats, where Judith (BSO Viola) managed to get some knitting done.

Whilst rehearsing Christine Dipple (vice-chairperson of the BSO Board) and husband Jim represented the orchestra at the ‘La Memorial’, Caen D-Day Remembrance Service where our extraordinary concert took place yesterday, and witnessed the unveiling of the bust of Tommy Harris who led the British Invasion force to liberate Caen.

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Service of Remembrance at the British Garden, Caen Memorial

Today’s concert in Lisieux Cathedral included beautiful dancing by Jeune Ballet du Payes d’Auge and music from l’Orchestre Regional de Basse-Normandie, the BSO players and choirs. The performance aroused multiple moments of heart-breaking emotion with many of the 1000-plus audience standing throughout. Seeing so many war veterans in the cathedral as well as in Caen yesterday makes performing ‘The Armed Man’ by Karl Jenkins even more poignant.

Being part of the D Day commemorations is certainly very humbling and a real honour.

Vicky Berry
Second Violinist

D-Day 70: The Armed Man Project, Normandy (Part III)

Day 3

After months of anticipation, today was our first performance in Normandy – at the Caen Memorial Museum, where in less than 48 hours the Heads of State of 17 Nations gather to commemorate D-Day and the Battle of Normandy – momentous events that signalled the beginning of the end of the Second World War.

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BSO Resonate Strings stroll the lawns of the Caens Memorial Museum

We arrived in good time for our rehearsal, and witnessed a veteran in a wheelchair having his photograph taken outside the museum.  We have seen several veterans this week, some of whom travelled on the same ferry as us from Portsmouth (there were also a number of vintage military vehicles coming off the ferry when we arrived).

Everything was set out ready for our rehearsal, including microphones (one for each of us – the performance was being televised).  The space in the museum was used imaginatively, with three young singers placed high above the orchestra and a chair set up for the principal cellist, Aurore Doué to play the solo in the Benedictus, also high above the orchestra. The lighting on these performers was perfectly positioned to add to the atmosphere.

Lots going on in preparation for the Caen Memorial Museum concert

Beneath the shadow of a fighter aircraft from the landings, suspended from the ceiling of the museum, we joined our friends from l’Orchestre Régional de Basse-Normandie and a choir of over 200 adults and children to perform Karl Jenkins powerful mass for peace – ‘The Armed Man’.

It is difficult to describe the sense of occasion and how privileged we felt performing this piece in Normandy during the 70th anniversary commemorations of D-Day.  We had caught glimpses during rehearsals of the film which Didier Lelièvre had created to accompany the performances. These powerful images of conflicts and reconciliation helped to create a unique experience that moved our Normandy audience to prolonged applause and standing ovation.

It was a very special performance – one which I will always remember.

Penny Tweed
BSO Violinist

D-Day 70: The Armed Man Project, Normandy (Part II)

Day 2

The hospitality from our amazing French hosts continues – we were contacted during the afternoon by l’Orchestre Regional de Basse-Normandie (ORBN) to say that the town we were rehearsing in (Mondeville) wanted to give us all a meal before the rehearsal tonight. On arriving we found a feast fit for a king – I am continually bowled over by the warmth of greeting and welcome to us all.

A machine gun unit strolls through the streets of Caen

There’s a distinct atmosphere of anticipation in the air in Caen – veterans, service personnel from today’s armed forces in British and American uniforms can be seen in the cafés, restaurants and around the city. Some of the few surviving vessels from the landing are in the marina.

This afternoon Christine Dipple, Deputy Chair of the BSO Board of Directors and her husband Jim arrived on the afternoon ferry from Portsmouth, recounting their sea crossing on Brittany Ferries which was packed with veterans who were invited onto the bridge as the ship docked at Ouisterham. Christine (a fluent French speaker) helped us enormously during the Titanic project in 2012, and is very used to the French way of working, which is helpful to us. I’d like to say a big thank from all of us to Chris and Jim for taking the time to come over and share this incredible experience.

There’s lots of publicity material about the D-DAY 70 events around the town and it’s good to see the BSO’s name wherever The Armed Man concerts are mentioned.

Rehearsal begins in the gymnasium

The rehearsal went well – it’s interesting hearing a 250 strong French choir singing in English, and at times we were able to help with pronunciation which made us feel rather helpful! Once again Jean Deroyer, the conductor worked intensively with the choir. He exudes an air of efficiency combined with a pleasant, encouraging manner. Everything augers well for the first performance of the run at the Caen Memorial Museum tomorrow.

Lots of cameras have arrived in preparation for the big concert tomorrow (in the same place that our Queen and President Obama visit on 6th June).

Fabrice & Andy hard at work (notice Fabrice’s beautiful scroll!)

We all seem to be picking up our own personal D-Day stories. My wonderful and lovingly eccentric principal double bass Fabrice told me his – both his parents were taken by their respective parents to shelter from the bombardment of the city in the local Hotel de Ville. Children at the time, they were not particularly close

A huge cross made of rubble was constructed so that it was visible from the air, indicating the building was full of civilians. Amazingly, the building was not touched and everyone survived. Ever since, Fabrice’s parents have been inseparable! Powerful and also ironic, as the Hotel de Ville was the building we had the preparatory meetings for this project.

This is a wonderful experience indeed.

Andy Baker
BSO Community Musician

D-Day 70: The Armed Man Project, Normandy (Part I)

Day 1

We’ve all arrived safely at Hotel Bristol, Caen, after the overnight ferry trip from Portsmouth. A bit bleary-eyed, admittedly, since you don’t get much sleep before being awoken at 4.45am, an hour before the ferry docks.

Our contingent of eight BSO musicians are here to join forces with l’Orchestre Regional de Basse-Normandie and give five performances of Karl Jenkins’s The Armed Man (A Mass for Peace) over the next week, these concerts being part of the many commemorative events taking place in Normandy to mark 70 years since the D-DAY landings on 6 June 1944 and the battle of Normandy that followed.

BSO Resonate Strings

We were welcomed at the ferry terminal by the CEO of ORBN, Guillaume Lamas and Milko Topic their Manager for this project who quickly whisked us to the hotel in the orchestra’s mini-bus. Having checked into rooms, we were joined for breakfast by Guillaume and Milko who handed us specially made t-shirts for the concerts, badges, guide-books, and maps. They suggested that as we wouldn’t be back from rehearsals until well after 9.00pm we should have lunch before departing for the rehearsal at 1pm, which resulted in us rather bizarrely, sitting down for lunch at 10.30am UK time.

In order to accommodate over 200 performers, ORBN are using a huge gymnasium for the rehearsals; as soon as we arrived we were surrounded by French musicians warmly welcoming us. For four of the ORBN musicians it was a case of a reunion since they’d worked with the members of the BSO Resonate Strings on the first part of this orchestra exchange project in February, when they came over to Portsmouth to join our players and pupils of Flying Bull primary school to give the premiere of a specially commissioned new work, Sous les Pommiers, written by Dorset-based singer/songwriter Sammy Hurden.

In order to perform ‘The Armed Man’, ORBM have engaged many additional players, and it was fascinating to watch the CEO personally introducing every extra musician, and of course the BSO to the orchestra’s principal conductor, Jean Deroyer who is directing the performance.

After many handshakes, kisses and embraces took place – all distinctfully and delightfully French, we were greeted by Camiile Varin and Dominique Demont, representatives of Caen City Council, who, together with colleagues, Claire Looney and Billy Ansell, from Caen’s twin city Portsmouth, made the successful bid to the EU Interreg Fund which has enabled the project to happen.

One of the challenges for the BSO players was trying to follow the conductor’s instructions since he spoke entirely in French, but again the ORBN musicians were so helpful to our musicians in translating bar numbers and letter cues.

Tiredness was creeping in and coffee was definitely needed. Suitably refreshed, the musicians returned for the evening rehearsal, now joined by choirs of children and adults from the three Departements of Normandy – the first time the 200 performers rehearsed together. Accompanying the music is a new film drawing on archival material from the Memoriale museum, Caen, created by Didier Lelievre, ORBN’s stage manager.

I have to take my hat off to the BSO players for by 9pm, they’d been in an intensive six hours of rehearsal and had been up since before 6am. Before retiring, a quick drink was the order of the day – a quiet café, a few beers, the odd glass of wine and cidre.

Andrew Burn
BSO Head of Projects & D-DAY 70 Tour Manager