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Looking Back: Lent 2011 in New York City

Published on Tuesday, 27 March 2012 Written by M. J. Egan, Gr. 10

fscnewyork1As I entered the historic Episcopalian church of St. Thomas on 5th Avenue in Manhattan, I took a deep breath. What I saw was sublime: a dimly lit church made of red sandstone, an imposing colonnade, a stunning altarpiece stretching from floor to ceiling.  The cloistral hush inside contrasted sharply with the hustle and bustle on 5th Avenue. The place smelled of old wood and incense.

We were unmistakably in a sacred place. St. Thomas Church, I would soon discover, was unique in another way too. It is the home of St. Thomas Choir, the only resident boys’ choir of its kind in North America. On the evening we were there, however, the boys of St. Thomas were hosting friends and fellow choristers from St. John’s College, Cambridge – one of the leading choirs in England.

An ancient institution, the choir of St. John’s College has been preparing boys to sing choral services for nearly 500 years. The boys (aged six to eleven and selected on the basis of singing potential) spend countless hours in training each day. It was truly providential that our excursion to New York coincided with a rare North American tour in which we could share in the fruits of their labours.

As the choristers entered on the evening of our performance, their black robes billowing behind them, everyone applauded. The boys took their places and looked expectantly at their choirmaster, Mr. Andrew Nethsingha. As he raised his arms, the boys let out their first notes. The sound they made was unlike anything I had ever heard before. Even after they had stopped singing, their voices hung in the air enchanting the audience below. To hear music so perfectly performed from boys who were so young was inspiring. They had a way of making difficult pieces seem easy, adding colour and life to music that goesback four hundred years.

At the intermission, Joanna Hamon and I spoke with the elderly lady seated in front of us. Happy to see young people in the audience, she asked if we were enjoying ourselves. “Very much,” I said, “It’s astonishing that such music can come from children so young.” “Well,” she said, “they work hard. I don’t think I would be able to do what they do.” I gave some thought to what she said. It was true. The ability to sing so beautifully was the result of hard work: learning the music, voice-training, keeping up with all the other subjects, not to mention living away from home for most of the year. I found this dedication admirable. Singing for a choir such as St. John’s was a privilege, but one not without its challenges.

The evening concluded with “The Twelve,” a contemporary piece telling the story of the apostles. The boys sang the haunting melody flawlessly, but I was most impressed by the soloist, a boy whom I had been watching for quite some time. Since he could not have been more than seven years old, and since he was more fidgety than his classmates, his eyes wandering all over the church, I would not have expected him to have been given such a prominent role. But when the time came for him to take his part, he calmly stepped forward at the conductor’s gesture and sang with one of the most beautiful voices I have ever heard in my life.


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