The first of the choir’s concerts in Florence took place in the splendid and atmospheric Basilica di San Lorenzo.  From 8-30 p.m. a crowd was gathering on the steps in the still hot Florentine evening and by 9 p.m., when the concert began, the church was virtually full.


Despite the fears of Musical Director Steven and of some of the choir, the acoustics of the church proved to be excellent. Steven and Accompanist Lydia entered to general applause and Steven delivered fluently and graciously the Italian introduction prepared for him by Helen McBride. The choir then began with two short pieces - the Alcock Sanctus and the Charles Wood Oculi Omnium, which were listened to with rapt attention by the audience. One is tempted to write ‘the congregation’ since the atmosphere was so reverent and the setting so appropriate that the audience sat respectfully, without applauding, as the choir continued with Charles Wood’s O Most Merciful, Edmund Rubbra’s The Virgin’s Cradle and John Wood’s Lord Be Thy Word My Rule.


Lydia’s piano solo, the Debussy La Cathedrale Engloutie was greeted with enthusiastic and prolonged applause, and when the choir resumed, the audience, no longer inhibited, applauded each further offering in appreciation of the different styles and genres of sacred music, from the profound majesty of Purcell’s Hear my Prayer O Lord and Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus to the wholehearted 19th century hymn of Sebastian Wesley Thou Wilt Keep him in Perfect Peace and the pieces by Lole and Chambers. The applause at the ‘end’ of the concert was sustained and fervent and it was therefore much appreciated when Steven introduced the (carefully prepared) surprise encores. The choir then concluded the evening with Stainer’s God so Loved the World and John Rutter’s The Lord is my Shepherd, respectively excellent examples of  19th and 20th century English sacred writing. Both were rightly received with prolonged applause and afterwards compliments and congratulations on the performance, in the accents of several different nationalities, were paid by members of the enthusiastic audience.


So a very successful evening for the choir and its faithful band of ‘groupies’ - the spouses, parents and friends of choir members. From a personal viewpoint, though the concert was excellent overall, there were some special moments. It was particularly magical to hear the music of two of our greatest composers of the genre, Purcell and Byrd, floating up and outwards in this beautiful church. The choir provided its audience with a deeply felt and uplifting experience, responding sensitively to the nuances of Steven’s conducting. Lydia’s playing was splendid as ever. The final moments of the concert were for me particularly memorable; the choir’s performance and Steven’s conducting of God so Loved the World was superlative and provided, for this listener at least, a whole new perspective on this well known Victorian piece.


The second concert was two days later, in the heart of the area round the Ponte Vecchio, at the Church of Santo Stefano, now changed from a church to a concert venue. The audience was, this time, somewhat smaller than that of the previous concert; supporters distributing flyers for the concert were met with many rebuffs from visitors in that popular tourist area. However, the audience was of a respectable size.


At the beginning of the concert the choir made a splendid theatrical entrance from the crypt and took up its place on the raised and pillared altar space. The programme was almost the same as that of the previous concert and the choir again performed excellently.  The acoustics showed to great advantage the beauty of some of the sublime short pieces, especially the polyphonic motets. One change in the programme was the replacement of the Purcell by O Nata Lux by Thomas Tallis - a welcome inclusion of our other great Tudor composer. The audience applauded every piece from the beginning, expressing particular enthusiasm for Lydia’s solo, and again for the two ‘encores’ by Stainer and Rutter, and expressing its delight and appreciation in its comments afterwards.


So the Florence tour was an undoubted success. As one of the choir ‘groupies’ I offer my praise and appreciation to the choir (without whom there would be no tour), to Steven and Lydia for their professionalism and especially to Pam Moult for her splendid organisation of the whole tour - a Tour de Force indeed!


Maureen Mulholland.