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.
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.
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.
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.