America Cantat IV

“Cardiff’s answer to the King’s Singers”

“One of the most startling British female choirs of our age”

Introduction to Festival

Tales from the “Cheesy Beans Tour” – personal account by Jo Scullin

From 5 to 14 April 2004 Vivace Singers appeared at America Cantat IV, an international choral festival held in Mexico City where they represented the United Kingdom as an international invited ensemble, sponsored by the Anglo Mexican Foundation.

The Festival was hosted by The Mexican Choral Foundation, in collaboration with the International Federation for Choral Music.
For ten days, renowned choirs of local and international prestige were engaged in artisitic and academic actvities, meeting colleages and building and exchanging friendship, making the musical scenario of Mexico City the Choral Capital of the Americas.

As with former editions of this festival, several workshops and study-tours took place under world renowned conductors and composers. Vivace Singers attended workshops on 20th century choral music for female voices in collaboration with Coral Femenino de San Justo of Argentina under their conductor, Roberto Saccente.

Over the fortnight the group performed at the following venues:
Wednesday 7 April 2004 – Teatro de la Republica, Queretaro
Thursday 8 April 2004 – CENART, Blas Galindo theatre, Mexico City
Sunday 11 April 2004 – Alcazar del Castillo de Chapultec, Museo Nacional de Historia, Mexico City
Tuesday 13 April 2004 – Centro Cultural Helenico Capilla, Mexico City
Wednesday 14 April 2004 – Teatro Metropolitan, Mexico City
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For a personal account of the festival by Jo Scullin, please read on:

Tales from the “Cheesy Beans” Tour

After arriving safely at Mexico Airport – leaving only one girl behind in Washington (possibly the most disorganised airport in the world with the longest ever immigration queue and particularly unhelpful staff) we were greeted by our guide, Javier (aptly fitting his description “tall, thin, holding a sign”). It was the beginning of our adventure – Vivace Singers representing Great Britain at the America Cantat IV Choral Festival – AKA “The Cheesy Beans Tour”

We were involved in 5 concerts during the festival, all highly successful and at some truly spectacular venues where we were welcomed by very warm and appreciative audiences. The venue that stuck in my mind was the exquisite setting of the Castillo de Chapultepec (the Imperial Palace of Emperor Maximilian), nestled amidst a lush green park and boasting the best views across the whole city (including the snow-capped mountains in the distance). We were also lucky to have been given a concert in Queretaro which meant a 3-hour drive (and an overnight stay) out of Mexico City and a wonderful opportunity to see more of the beautiful Mexican countryside. The most memorable concert itself was at the CENART Blas Galindo Theatre. We shared this concert with several other choirs and being last in the programme meant we had a very long wait backstage (thank goodness we hijacked the best dressing room). But it was worth it. I have never performed to such a rapturous audience who gave us a standing ovation and slow-clapped us back onto the stage for two encores. If that wasn’t enough we were then bombarded by requests for CD’s autographs and photos and we received invitations to other international festivals in 2005.

Another of our festival commitments was the participation in 2 daily workshops. “20th Century Female Choral Music” was led by Argentinean Maestro Roberto Saccente (a consummately gorgeous septuagenarian), technique professor Laura Saccente (who’s warm ups were great fun – but apparently not for pregnant ladies – not quite sure how that one came into the equation, but nice to know nonetheless) and their choir “Coral Femenino de San Justo.” They are a fine choir and the most wonderful group of “chicas” and they swiftly became our best friends. It was a privilege and a joy to share a fortnight of musicianship with them and there were many tears shed when we came to say “adios”. The second workshop each day was in preparation for the final concert of the festival and was led by Maria “fluent in 50 languages” Guinand of Venezuela, accompanied (much to our amusement) by Margarita Prakatan at the pianoforte. Well okay, it wasn’t really Margarita Prakatan – but there were lots of similarities. This workshop was challenging as the Carribbean music we had to learn, whilst fun and rhythmically infectious was very fast and in Spanish! At least we made the rest of the group laugh (out loud) with our dodgy pronunciation. We were delighted though when Maria asked us to take the part of soloists in one of the pieces. One other commitment we had for the Anglo-Mexican foundation was an hour-long live radio interview at the studios of Opus 94, Mexico’s classical music radio station during which they played 5 tracks from our CD and we had a call from a fan! It was whilst doing this interview that we discovered we were billed on the same flyer as Coldplay – cool!

The final concert in the festival was eventful and logistically challenging from the start. Our transport didn’t turn up to take us from the hotel to the theatre so we eventually got there an hour and a half after the concert had started. We were just lucky we got there about 5 minutes before our workshop group was due to perform! The concert also involved all festival participants (about 2000 people) performing the world premier of a specially commissioned work for 5 choirs, 3 marimbas and a soloist! It sounds highly organised, but wasn’t! We had only had minimal rehearsal on the piece (which I have to admit wasn’t really my cup of tea either), and at times it was a real challenge to see the conductor and follow his beat (especially amidst constantly changing tempo and metre) but all 2000 of us seemed to get through to the end – just. My favourite bit of the evening though (and the most entertaining but I shouldn’t laugh because it wasn’t really funny) was in the final number when nobody had forewarned the conductor that there would be a fountain pyrotechnic set off right behind him across the width of the stage. I have never seen anyone move so fast! Oh and then there was the comedy moment of us being stood at the front of the stage having no idea how to sing the Mexican National Anthem so instead, we just made it up adding in our own decorative vocalises!

Away from the festival we had lots of fun. There were the hotels: firstly the “San Fran” – a “building site in progress” in the downtown part of the city, with special features of rats in the ceiling and a random night-time trumpeter on the street outside. When we got back from our overnight stay in Queretaro, we discovered that the San Fran had let out our rooms (although they claimed that they hadn’t and there was a problem with humidity! Funny how people answered the phone when we rang each room from the lobby). But it turned out to be a blessing, as we were re-housed to the much nicer Hotel del Angel where there were no rats and no signs of construction. There was Barry the cockroach, but he seemed to keep himself to himself. Oh and of course there was the incident at check out when they held us hostage in the foyer because the festival committee had not yet paid the bill. Ordinarily it wouldn’t have been funny but we had to laugh at the street vendor gesticulating through the window in an attempt to sell us ponchos. When we didn’t rush out in response to his offer (well we couldn’t because the security guard was blocking the door in a somewhat threatening manner) he dropped his price, and continued to do so. What a shame he eventually got bored. The way he was going we could have bartered him down to nothing – and all just because we were held hostage!

There was the food, most of which involved cheese and ham. This was a little tricky for our vegan and dairy-intolerant members and our catch phrase soon became “sin queso, sin cremo, sin leche” (without cheese, without cream, without milk). Breakfast every day came with “cheesy beans” – a sort of bean mush (topped with melted cheese) which although a very unfortunate brown colour tasted good. The trip was quickly re-named “The Cheesy Beans Tour”. Other culinary delights included fried eggs on cheese & ham tortillas covered in a spicy chocolate sauce, known as mole sauce (Ali was chuffed because that dish was pictured in the guide book!), fresh tropical fruit, slightly stale pastries, “Cheesy Cactus” and cactus soup.

There was the sight-seeing, accompanied at every available opportunity by Anna and her fascinating facts from “The Bloody Guide Book” – well that’s what I called it! There was the lopsided Cathedral (lopsided because it was built on a dried up lake and is now sinking into the soft ground – thanks for that fact Anna). There was the colonial town of Queretaro with its clean air and beautiful vibrant colours, where we were recognised in the street the day after our concert, and where Nia and Javier ended up in the sex shop buying sunglasses. (Don’t ask – only in Mexico do you go to the sex shop to buy your sunglasses!) Organ grinders on every street corner of Mexico city playing the most out of tune music I have ever heard – and expecting payment for it. The Teotihuacan Pyramids with a myriad of vendors selling tourist tat. “Beautiful lady&ldots;. you like? You Buy? I give you good price? Ten Dollar!” Actually, I did like and I did buy (presents for the parents – they’ll never know – I’ll tell them it was handcrafted by a wizened old man in the market) because I wanted to save my money for Tequila in Duty Free. We saw beautiful purple-blossomed jacaranda trees, a string quartet playing Land of Hope and Glory in the shopping arcade (we liked that and cheered very loudly) and the Mariachi (traditional Mexican serenading-type bands). The list was endless and the sights, sounds and smells were truly amazing.

And then there was Javier (tall, thin, holding a sign). An actor/dancer who’s job was to look after us for the fortnight, he described himself as our “Fairy Godmother”, but to my mind that didn’t do him justice and I think “Guardian Angel” is more fitting. A perfect gentleman with the best ever sense of humour, he was on hand 24 hours a day to be our tour guide, ensure we had the safest taxis (and the smartest festival transport) and to translate for us. Perhaps his finest hour was the occasion when he mistakenly translated the sign “We are all Cockerels” as “We are all cocks!” – another of the tour’s catchphrases. He introduced us to the wonders of Paloma (a long tequila), took us shopping in the market and taught us (through the medium of role-play) how to barter – excellent! He sorted out all of our problems with the hotels, made sure we never got lost, played bilingual rude-word scrabble with us (hurrah), became our official dancer and shared so much fun and laughter with us. It was 2 weeks of true friendship and it really was sad when we had to say goodbye. But he plans to come to the UK in December, so we are determined to see him again and return the favour of being his tour guides around the British Isles.

  • Mexican shower water smells of plasterboard
  • Taxi means the same in any language
  • You don’t seem to need a driving license to drive in Mexico and you can pretty much drive your car wherever, however and whichever way you want (and we think the M25 is bad!!!!!)
  • Nearly everyone in Mexico drives an old style VW beetle. Green and White beetles are taxis but you shouldn’t catch them because they can be dangerous!
  • The train track runs down the middle of the main road and the trains go slower than the cars.
  • Concert audiences come and go as they please in Mexico – they are never on time. In fact nobody is ever on time in Mexico.
  • Self-flushing toilets (How do they know when you have finished?)
  • 20 cigarettes in Mexico cost about 75p
  • The most common brand of bread in Mexico is called “Bimbo”
  • Professional Beggars say very rude things when you don’t give them any money (well we’re not entirely sure, but the way she spoke it sounded very rude!)
  • Mistakenly referring to the “self-flagellating” rituals of Easter as “self-flatulating”
  • The lady who’s T-Shirt bore the brand “BUM Equipment”
  • The Argentineans say “Whisky” when having their photo taken.
  • Being told not to sing “like a man.”
  • 8 jetlagged girls falling asleep during the festival’s opening concert.

Finally, and most importantly there are the thank you’s. To Susan, John, Susanna and all at the Anglo-Mexican Foundation for flying us halfway around the world and making the best 2 weeks ever possible – and of course for lovely Tapas at the Sheraton; to Javier (AKA Dancing Man) for&ldots;..well everything; to Roberto, Iris, Laura and the Chicas for sharing their immense musicianship with us; to Zoe Smith at RWCMD who recommended us for the gig in the first place (thanks Zoe – we owe you one) and a very special thank you to our own Kirsten who worked tirelessly (and often through the night) before we went to make sure that everything went to plan – which it most certainly did.

Next stop – Argentina 2005 – Watch this space!

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