King's College Choir Tour to the Far East and USA (Summer 2000)

by Timothy Kiddell

After the disappointment of the previous summer when various tour plans melted away, this 11-concert 'global circumnavigation' – as it came to be called – taking in the Far East and USA, brought a bonanza of memorable moments. Among the brightest highlights of the seven-flight, three-week tour was the amazing welcome and endless enthusiasm of our hosts in Taiwan. Surely a King’s Choir can never have had more impressive VIP treatment. Also impressive, and perhaps the real significance of this tour, was the fact that our venues were all concert halls rather than the more usual cathedral-like buildings and, in the USA, we made debut appearances at three prestigious festivals.

It was just three days after the Choir’s late-night promenade concert at the Royal Albert Hall that Virgin Atlantic whisked us off on the first leg – a weekend in Hong Kong. The 13-hour flight, marginally the longest of the tour, did not sap the energy of the choral scholars, many of whom managed an evening foray into the warm streets and bright lights of Kowloon for a spot of night shopping. A particularly charismatic and entrepreneurial tailor had a notably successful night as he persuaded the English tourists to part with considerable sums of money in return for leaving stylishly dressed.

Our weekend also proved to be busy, with the opening two concerts of the tour at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, last visited by the choir en route to Australia in 1998. The tour was to provide many challenges for the singers, often physical, with uncomfortable early starts and tiring flights, but the first weekend provided a musical challenge. Two separate programmes, constituting about half of the music for the entire trip, meant much hard work in rehearsals to get the concerts off to a successful start, but ultimately this gave the group a psychological lift and indeed created more free time for later days. There was, however, still time for some further exploration and many enjoyed taking the Star Ferry over to Hong Kong Island and a trip up to the Peak.

Our stay at the Hotel YMCA coincided with that of the Uppingham School Choir and Swing Band who invited us to their last-night reception which followed our opening concert. The Swing Band provided the Choir with an early opportunity for a spot of dancing but not before Collegium Regale had sung their first set of many on the tour. Indeed, they were back in action the following afternoon, entertaining an audience of schoolgirls as part of an informal talk on singing given by Stephen. Following the second concert that evening, we spent our final night in Hong Kong in James Bond style at the classy Felix bar situated at the top of the Hotel Peninsula.

Monday morning saw most of us leave for Macau, a former Portuguese colony handed back to the Chinese the previous December after 442 years. While, technically, we were merely taking a hydrofoil from one part of China to another, such ideals of free movement as are normal in the UK could not have seemed further from the minds of the meticulous (and very slow) immigration officers of Hong Kong. Thus when Mr Westwood packed his passport in a case that was all-too-quickly loaded on to the hydrofoil, he was stranded at the port as the rest of the group embarked on the second leg of our adventure.

One video satirising the Royal family and a minor baggage confusion later, we found ourselves on the bus to a very classy hotel whose array of facilities (swimming pool, jacuzzi, tennis courts, games room, etc.) was to consume most, and in many cases, all of our free time in the coming two days. Spare a thought at this point for Mr Westwood, stuck in a foreign port and unable to speak the language. We did, and Mr Staples went to the trouble of giving the bewildered bass a friendly call on his mobile. The call was certainly friendly, but our resident joker thought he would test out his Chinese accent and pretend to be the helpful Chinese immigration official who had found Westwood’s passport. This proved to be surprisingly convincing and as the wind-up continued, Staples informed him that he needed to purchase a red hat in order to be recognised when this official returned to Hong Kong with the passport! As the rest of the Choir settled down for a relaxing afternoon, Staples returned to Hong Kong with Westwood’s passport to rescue him and reveal the joke.

Renditions of Puff the magic dragon that evening endeared us towards a guitar-playing and singing musical trio entertaining us in the hotel’s Flamingo restaurant while we experienced the local cuisine. In general the food in the Far East was enjoyed by the Choir although en masse we ate a lot of rice, tended to steer clear of the congealed duck’s blood and quenched much thirst with cans of 'Sweat'!

After the concert in Macau we were to embark on a marathon. Returning to the hotel at midnight, we had to leave again at 4.30am for the journey to Taiwan with a concert that night and indeed every night for the next three days. Our agent, Susan Francis, had offered to ring all the choral scholars at 4.00am, and, thus assured of someone to perform the Chris Bagnall / Mummy role of saving them from the misery of over-sleeping, the choral scholars remained unperturbed by the imminent early start. None more so than Mr Staples, who decided to get up even earlier at 3.45am so as to be ready for the call at 4.00am. When it came, he switched on the Chinese accent again and pretended to be an annoyed Chinese resident woken up by a wrong number, leaving our unsuspecting agent momentarily flustered. Later, on the flight, not wishing to be outdone, she contemplated ticking some of the wrong boxes on his landing card while he slept off his earlier exertions – until it was pointed out that several of these seemingly incurred the death penalty!

Our time in Taiwan was without doubt the most amazing and memorable experience of the tour. Our visit, as part of the founding of the Museum of World Religions, appeared something of a national event and the hospitality that we received and the interest with which we were followed were remarkable. Met by members of the government at the airport, whizzed through Customs and followed by television cameras, we proceeded by coach to the palatial Grand Hotel where we were greeted by an elaborate welcoming party of monks lining the entrance hall, applauding our entry and presenting each singer with a bouquet of flowers. This was merely a sign of what was to follow, as we subsequently enjoyed 12-course meals, breakfast with the President, the best French restaurant in Taiwan, the biggest shopping centre in Taiwan, the best museum in Taiwan, more luxury hotel facilities and many more bouquets of flowers. Indeed, Mr Bullard took great pride in creating an imaginative floral display with the nine bouquets that he received over the four days. For a bit of variety it was suggested that for our last concert Stephen might prefer to receive a teddy bear and so a very large white bear (about the size of the smallest treble) was presented to him as smaller bears and flowers were presented to each of the singers. The white bear was christened Albert in honour of Albert Liao who, together with his family, did so much to bring about our Taiwan experience and to make it so special.

The three concerts in the National Concert Hall were very well received, shouts of encore presenting the choral scholars with an opportunity to entertain the Taiwanese further with some close harmony. There were many autographs to sign and the staff had to perform the occasional rescue of a treble from the crowds outside the venue. Away from the culture and into 'real' Taiwan, we also managed a visit to the sights and smells of a night market with its many trinkets, gadgets, snakes and food. The finale to our stay was a gala feast in the Dragon Ballroom on the top floor of the Grand Hotel. Another 12 courses and a variety show including opera singers, dancing dragons and Taiwan’s answer to Michael Ball all preceded the speech of the Vice President. The Collegium Regale show followed with a set of close harmony flanked by Mr MacSweeney speaking in fluent Mandarin and Mr Kiddell thanking everyone for our tremendous reception and talking of the role for King’s Choir in the promotion of love with no boundaries and world peace – the two ambitions at the heart of the founding of the Museum of World Religions.

Our escape from Taiwan (we were chased out by a typhoon on our tail) was courtesy of China Airlines. It was our second and, thankfully, final flight in their care. The former, into Taiwan, had not left us relishing the latter as we accelerated in descent towards the sea. The flight to Tokyo was delayed by the failure of the second engine; the assurances of the captain that "it’s a perfectly good engine – it just won’t start" produced an impromptu performance of Abide with Me.

Two days off in Tokyo allowed exploration of 'electric city' and many shopping malls as well as relaxation in another quality hotel. The Japanese are perhaps most famous for their gadgetry and innovation, so it is probably fitting that, for many, the abiding memory of the hotel was lavatory visits where an electronically-controlled plastic tube sprayed a powerful jet of warm water, resulting in higher levels of hygiene than would normally be experienced in the western bathroom.

The final leg of the tour consisted of debut appearances at three prestigious festivals in the USA: Mostly Mozart (New York), Interlochen and Ravinia. After a long flight over the Pacific, the choir spent the weekend seeing the usual sights of New York and, for several, there were trips to see Chicago on Broadway and down to Greenwich to the Blue Note Jazz Club. We enjoyed the friendly and generous hospitality of St Thomas’s Choir School which provided food for everyone and accommodation for the trebles who were effectively completing an exchange, following the Americans’ visit to Cambridge a month earlier.

Monday’s concert presented the first performance of our palindromic programme of Bach, Mozart, Brahms : Brahms, Mozart, Bach, which received a pleasing review in The New York Times. By taking on the challenge of singing on the big concert platforms and at the major summer festivals, the choir was taking a major step in staying ahead in its field, and the exciting opportunities that have arisen through its work with Intermusica can only bode well for the future. Nevertheless, the challenge of succeeding at the festivals was considerably heightened by the length of the tour and yet another very early start to leave New York and get to our next concert in Interlochen that night. Finally, a seven-hour coach journey down to Chicago took us to Ravinia where we enjoyed singing not only to an audience in the Martin Theatre but also to a similarly large crowd listening to a relay outside in the grounds.

At the post-final-concert reception, numerous presentations and thanks were made. Particular mention must be made of Susan Francis (now Keeling) who was involved in the planning of the tour from the outset, and worked tirelessly throughout to ensure a smooth and successful trip.

On the final morning we bade farewell to Chuck, our entertaining and charismatic bus driver for the US leg of the tour, singing some final close harmony numbers, and returned to Heathrow exhausted but unquestionably enriched by our global experiences.

Timothy Kiddell

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