A Personal Reflection on the
Residency at St. Albans

About two years ago, when it was first proposed for the Choir of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral  (Phoenix, Arizona) to do a week-long Residency at The Cathedral and Abbey Church at St. Albans, I was thrilled.  As a member of the choir, I thought about how exciting it would be to experience a taste of the day-in, day-out choir existence of my father's youth.  

My father, Lindsay Lafford, Lord of Ridley, was born in 1912, and at the age of ten, started a long musical career as probationer in the choir at Hereford Cathedral.  He progressed to chorister, lead chorister, and organ assistant before spending four years in Hong Kong as Organist at St. John's Cathedral from 1935-39, then coming to America for an academic career.  

He had moved to Arizona almost twenty years ago, where he had been composing and conducting his music, reaching a pinnacle in 2007, conducting the chamber choir Cantemus in the première of his Cantata of Psalms, for soloists, chorus, and chamber orchestra, right here at Trinity Cathedral, filled to capacity, two weeks after his 95th birthday.  

As for the Residency, I also looked forward to sharing the experience with my father, allowing him to relive, through me and our shared anticipation, a period of his life that figured so large in his musical preparation and life.  He fully embraced the project, even accompanying me while I sang some of his music at the Over-the-Pond Fund Raiser on the eve of his 101st birthday last October.  

Preparation for the Residency was a big job.  We would be singing six Evensong services and a Sunday Eucharist.  Each Evensong had Preces and Responses, a chanted Psalm, Canticles (a Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis), and a major anthem; the Eucharist had its own service music and anthem.  All in all, it was about three hours of choral music, much of it a cappella.

At Trinity, we had been singing an Evensong service about once a month, building up our "Preces and Response" and "Mag and Nunc" repertoire.  Psalms and anthems were part of the weekly service.  The big push came in the month before our residency, with three long rehearsals with the choir arranged in the Decani and Cantoris arrangement, roughly a dozen on each side facing each other with our director in the middle.  

Feeling well prepared, we wrapped up the last stateside rehearsal on July 16, and met again at the airport on Sunday, July 27th, a day later than planned, it turned out, with our flight being delayed by almost a day.  Aside from missing our Sunday evening welcome meal, and a chance to attend the last Evensong of the outgoing choir in Residency, the most significant impact was that we had to sing an Evensong about six hours after landing, jet-lagged and all.  The adrenaline apparently carried us through, however, resulting in the St. Albans clergy being very complimentary, setting high expectations for the rest of the week.

I found the experience singing in the Cathedral of St. Albans to be almost magical.  As we stood in the tall hardwood choir stalls, the organ on top of the screen towered over the Quire. 

O Lord, open thou our lips...

The solitary "G" wafted down from above for the cantor:

   "O Lord, open Thou our Lips."

And we answered truthfully,

            "And our mouth shall shew forth thy praise..."

Magnificat

In the accompanied pieces, the organ would pour down upon us, and our voices would rise up to meet, mesh, and complete the sweet harmonious sound. 

           "My so---ul doth magnify the Lo---rd, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior."  (Pay attention to the dynamics...crescendo...diminuendo...)

O, Thou, the central orb

In the space with minimal upholstered chairs, one could sing in a virtual whisper, yet still be heard.  And after a full-throated "Aaah-----men," nothing can touch that seven-second reverberation while some of the sound makes the round trip to the Lady Chapel in the east end and back, and the rest of it goes west to the far end of the nave and disappears in the arcades and the clerestory.

The rest of the week went very well.  The services were special, and the music meaningful.  In between, we fit in touristic visits to Windsor Castle, Westminster Abbey, Cambridge, and Hatfield House.

Alas, the trip was bittersweet for me.  My father passed away peacefully in April, at the age of 101 1/2.  He had been composing and playing right up until a brief illness: a week in hospital, and a short 36-hour stay in Hospice, my brother and sister with me at his bedside.  We had a very nice Memorial Service full of his music, in Tempe where he lived at Friendship Village.  And after the week in St. Albans, my sister and I took his ashes back to Hereford Cathedral, where the Dean conducted a burial service placing his ashes in the Chapter House Garden "in the shadow of the Cathedral he loved," as the Dean put it.    

The whole week in St. Albans, I was imagining him as a boy in the choir, rehearsing in the Song Room in the morning, singing Evensong in the Quire; or playing the organ above, appreciative of the Cathedral acoustics.  Then I got to spend a few days in Hereford with distant, yet dear, relatives, walking the stone-paved passages of the Cathedral he ran around as a boy.  I learned so much about the Anglican tradition during that week, but I also came up with so many questions for my father that will now have to go not unanswered, but unasked.

On the other hand, I know my father was with me in spirit, enjoying the sight of his younger son thriving in the embrace of the same sort of musical environment in which he had grown up, in Hereford, 90 years earlier.

I sincerely appreciate the support that made my participation in the St. Albans Residency possible, from my friends, the Trinity Cathedral family, and the greater Phoenix-area community.  The experience will always hold a very special place in my heart.

Peter Lafford
August 2014