Sunday, January 14, 2018
By Seth Tack, junior bass
Today, the Chamber Choir started our day at the Churchill War Rooms, a museum within spitting distance of the British Parliament complex. The museum’s home is an immense neoclassical structure that’s bedecked with four-story pillars and is roughly the size of a city block, but this is deceiving since the entire museum is below ground. This is because it houses the rooms in which Prime Minister Winston Churchill, along with his cabinet and his personal staff, directed the British war effort for a large portion of World War 2. Some background: When Churchill was elected in May 1940, the war with Nazi Germany had already been underway for the better part of a year. Though he had planned to direct the war primarily above ground, he was forced below when the official Prime Minister’s residence, 10 Downing Street, was damaged in one of the regular bombings of London in September of 1940. What I quickly found out was that this was no ordinary basement, or even a single conference room, but a series of rooms housing an entire infrastructure of people ranging from cooks to secretaries to the senior officers and cabinet members, with sufficient accommodations that one would be able to stay below-ground for weeks on end.
Churchill made top-secret phonecalls to FDR, bossed around secretaries, and made decisions crucial to ending the war, all in this cramped basement. (There was also information about the deciphering of Nazi codes at Bletchley Park, which you can find out more about in the movie “The Imitation Game” with Benedict Cumberbatch).
In one section of the museum, there is an extensive timeline of Winston Churchill’s life: his privileged but isolated upbringing, his published works and lecture tours before the age of 30, his eventual rise to power culminating in being elected prime minister, his re-election loss in 1945, and his years speaking out against the Soviet Union afterwards. He died in 1965, with a state funeral televised all over the world.
This museum was particularly enthralling to me because it struck me that this man is partially responsible for ending the war in which my great grandparents could have lost their lives.
After this incredible experience, the choir had a few precious hours of free time to explore this wonderful city. I elected to walk with some of my friends through the imposing Trafalgar Square (which, I was reminded several times, is where parts of “My Fair Lady” took place) and on to the neighborhood of Covent Garden, which was better than I dared hope.
After some of the best Indian food I’ve had in my life, and some soft serve ice cream served in a cloud of cotton candy, we wandered into a city square bursting with flashing lights, rich aromas, and pulsing live music. In one corner, a highly skilled string quartet played selections from their debut album; in another, a man sang and played angsty coffeehouse jams on his acoustic guitar; in another, a man played a foreign woodwind instrument with a single mouthpiece, which branched off into multiple pipes of different lengths for differences in pitch.
Perhaps the highlight of my day was seeing the outside of the Royal Opera House, where some of the best opera in the world has been performed (It was here that, in 1959, Joan Sutherland made her role debut as the title role in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” triumphantly launching her 30-year career as the leading coloratura of her generation).
Then came our evening concert. It was about an hour’s drive to Greenwich, home of the Chapel at the Old Naval College, our venue for the night. I don’t know what I expected, but what I saw when I walked in was breathtaking. The ceiling was as colored and ornate as if it were painted china; the altar painting was four times my height; even the floor tiles were almost too beautiful to walk on. The chapel was designed by Christopher Wren.
Singing in this space, after being so overwhelmed by London already, was entrancing, and my memories of the performance are hazy, shrouded in the mist of my awe. We then quickly packed up and road back, with little to say. As several audience members reminded us, “tomorrow’s the big one,” so we’re looking ahead to our work to prepare to sing choral evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral.