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Choir in Croatia

Pembroke graduate Katharine Griffiths (2012) reflects on the Pembroke Chapel Choir’s recent trip to Croatia

Herbie Hancock, the prolific American jazz musician, once said ‘music happens to be an art form that transcends language.’ I’ve found that this notion can only be truly appreciated by packing up your instruments and heading out into the world to share your music with other people. This is exactly what the Chapel Choir, in which I am fortunate enough to sing as an alto, embarked upon in early July with our tour to Croatia.

In many ways, the tour served as a celebration of our ongoing work throughout the year. It was something we were all eagerly looking forward to. The tour lived up to and exceeded my expectations: it not only brought together and crystallised many of the benefits I had experienced from singing regularly in a choir, but it also acted as a platform for enlightening and poignant cultural exchanges.

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The Choir singing in Split’s cathedral, situated within the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s palace.

Before we caught our flight to Dubrovnik we spent an initial week in Cambridge sharpening up our repertoire. This ranged from William Byrd’s madrigal Haec Dies, to an arrangement of the traditional spiritual Down to the River to Pray, to my personal favourite – Rachmaninov’s Bogoroditse Dyevo (the alto part is particularly juicy). During this time we performed two concerts, one at St Michael’s Cornhill in London and the other here in Pembroke to raise money for the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Over the week we felt ourselves improving and coming together as an ensemble, this was especially thanks to Greg Drott, the Director of Music here at Pembroke, and his skill in getting the choir to notice details about the music that are often overlooked; the placement of sounds and the way you control your voice have layers of complexity which I had not appreciated before singing for PCCC.

Once we arrived in Croatia we soon found that our music could act as a platform for interacting with and understanding the local audiences. From the beginning, we could perceive we were forging a connection with the listeners as we sang for them. For some, they were hearing Anglican choral music for the first time and you could see the intrigue on their faces, confirmed by standing ovations on a couple of instances.

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PCCC stylishly tearing up the islands around Hvar.

One concert that stood out prominently was at the Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Mostar where we performed on our day trip to Bosnia Herzegovina. The recent and tragic history of this part of the world was clear from the bullet-holes and derelict buildings which punctuated the streets amidst contemporary architecture and construction sites; the church itself was still only partially built. The choir also had the privilege of meeting the city’s mayor. He explained how Mostar was adamant to rebuild and reconcile itself with its turbulent history, make international friends, and share their cultures.

For me, the culmination of this aspect of the tour was a post-concert sing-along with our hosts, the delightful Franciscan monks attached to the church. Beers in hand, we all joined together for a rendition of the local folk song ‘Milo janje moje’. The Dean even felt inspired to perform his classic cover of ‘The Hippopotamus Song’ in response – a definite highlight.

Perhaps a touch of nostalgia at my graduating from Pembroke is inspiring me to say this, but one final thing that the tour gave me was a reminder of how strong my friendships are within the choir. Making music together has a mysterious and otherworldly way of binding people to each other. I think it comes down to realising you are part of something bigger than yourself.

This notion has been captured by the many unforgettable memories we shared throughout the tour, some rewarding and some challenging. We may have had to battle through intense heat, comically drastic sunburn, relentless insect bites and sea-sickness but we also got to dance in the square of Diocletian’s Palace in Split fully clad in concert wear, and enjoy a spontaneous moonlight swimming escapade in a bay just outside the walls of Dubrovnik’s old city. I will particularly remember the moment the whole choir set out in tentative formation in a flotilla of motor boats to explore the islands around Hvar, as if trying (but not quite managing) to recreate some scene from a classic Bond film.

All in all, my memories of PCCC’s tour to Croatia will resonate for some time to come, just as the final, gutsy ‘Amen’ of Holsts’s Nunc Dimittis did around the rafters of Dubrovnik’s Dominican monastery on the night of our final concert.

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