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On Tour: Spain with Berkshire Youth Guitar Orchestra

This summer, BYGO (Berkshire Youth Guitar Orchestra) and BYC (Berkshire Youth Choir) embarked on a brief tour of Spain, and our Head of Music Alex West was aboard to capture the experience from the inside.

If you didn’t know me well, you’d probably find it an odd choice to pick up an instrument I hadn’t played in a year to join up with a guitar group I last performed with an even longer time ago. But the decision was a no brainer: touring again with BYGO was a chance to relive some of the best times of my life, see old friends, fall in love with the classical guitar again and simultaneously explore a new area of Spain. It was the perfect break from the monotony of Summer.

Our tour would see the two groups play four concerts in total, in three cities with a depth of cultural and musical history. We started in the nation’s capital.

Madrid

After a day of travelling and, relative to previous tours, a decent start of only one scratched guitar, both groups arrived at our hotel in Madrid. Based on the outskirts of the city, just South from the Manazares River, the Hotel Praga formed a quiet break from the bustle of the main hub.

Not exactly what’d be expected from a visit to a nation’s capital, but suburban peace was welcome after a frantic journey

We spent most of the first day sightseeing, with highlights including the Bernabeu, the home to the football team Real Madrid who recently claimed a third successive European crown. We also stopped off at the Museo Taurino, which if you speak any Spanish you’ll recognise as a bull-fighting museum. This was an unsurprisingly controversial site, but our tour guide insisted that even in modern Spain, bull-fighting is done out of respect for the bull — they fight the animal because they hold it in such esteem. Despite a noticeable contingent visibly disagreeing with the practice, the tour quickly moved on, and we found ourselves in the city centre for lunch.

Luckily, a small group of alumni and older students broke off from the main group (a large number of which unfortunately ended up in a slightly dodgy pizza place), and with TripAdvisor on our side we managed to find a reasonably priced and quality Tapas bar called El miniBAR. Our limited Spanish allowed us to convey that we only had half an hour to eat, and the staff were brilliantly accommodating with this; the dishes were fresh, served quickly and tasted fantastic.

That evening, the choir were performing at Basilica de la Milagrosa, in the East of the Northern Chamberí District. They left for a joint rehearsal with the group they were singing alongside, Coro de Jóvenes de Madrid (Madrid Youth Choir), whilst the guitarists enjoyed some free time. The two ensembles then met once again for a disastrous meal at VIPS diner which caused unanimous complaints which I won’t dwell on here, before we arrived back at the venue for what was to be a spectacular performance.

The entrance by the Madrid group made attending worth it on its own; the group walked down the aisle of the Church, singing as they went. At first, this seemed a puzzling and perhaps pretentious choice, but it was supported by jaw-dropping vocals that showed why these young singers were the best in Madrid. They were conducted by an animated Jared Leto lookalike who swung about the stage with tremendous vigour, lip-syncing to his pupils’ every word as they belted out lines of Latin and Spanish.

Chris Hann’s BYC took to the stage second, and held up in comparison to a choir constituting mainly of singers several years their senior, an impressive feat. The location imposed the limit of performing only sacred music on the group, who found a compromise with some gospel classics, which the onlookers, predominantly attending in support of our hosts, took great enjoyment in. Finally, the two choirs united for a joyful joint performance to end the night. Overall, a success of a first full day.

Palencia

The following morning was one of the most hectic, as we woke early to travel to Palencia, a small town to the North of Madrid where we found our new accommodation: Hotel Rey Sancho. The meal there was the best for the whole tour in catering for vegetarian, vegan and gluten free musicians.

Long coach journeys through beautiful Spanish countryside were a regular feature on this trip

Post-lunch, the two groups travelled again to Melgar de Fernamental, a quaint village with a declining population of less than 2000 inhabitants which wouldn’t have felt out of place in a Western movie. Its main attraction is the ‘Iglesia de la Asunción de Nuestra Señora’, the church which would house BYC’s second, and BYGO’s first performance. Featuring grand architecture that must have made the building the most valuable in several miles, the acoustics weren’t the best fit for the guitars, but worked with the voices of the choir. Following dinner at a local restaurant, Meson del Pisuerga, which was set beautifully against a stream and park, we returned to the holy building for the evening’s concert.

The attendances in Spain were noticeably higher than previous tours, particularly Germany 2014 (my first trip with BYGO), and Melgar de Fernamental was no different. For a first tour date, BYGO couldn’t have wished for a better reception, and BYC too were well received. Afterwards, we headed back to the hotel — I found myself on BYC’s coach, where I was reminded of the consequences of travelling with a choir as they broke out into song for half of the journey.

The next day both groups had the morning to chill by the hotel pool. TripAdvisor was again a welcome companion for lunch, as it directed us to Bar La Mejillonera, an informal, fast-food style bar which served exquisite seafood, and a dish that was worryingly becoming a quick favourite of mine: patatas bravas (potatoes with a local sauce differing by Spanish region, in Burgos they had a spicy kick to them).

In the evening we travelled to Carrión del los Condes, where we were to play our second joint concert at Monasterio de San Zoilo, a converted monastery including a hotel and eatery. The picturesque grounds of the establishment provided an opportune moment for photos to an eager crop of students.

After another successful concert that saw both sets of musicians put on solid displays, we returned to the hotel. The next morning saw another relaxed few hours, in advance of the trip on to our next destination.

Salamanca

Nicknamed ‘La Dorada’, the ‘Golden City’ of Spain, Salamanca is famed for its glowing sandstone buildings, and as we arrived amidst the heat of summer to Hotel Silken Rona Dalba in the city centre, we could appreciate its full beauty.

Salamanca is set against the River Tormes

The Old City was declared a World Heritage Site back in 1988; the University, founded in 1218 by Alfonso IX of Léon, is the fourth oldest in Western Europe, the Baroque-style Plaza del Major that forms the main commercial hub was designed in the 18th Century by world-renowned architects the Churriguera family, and the two Cathedrals date back several hundred years: the ‘New’ Cathedral was commissioned in the early 16th Century.

This faraway pedalo turned out to contain some of the rest of the group — I had no idea at the time

We had time to explore all of these on the afternoon we arrived, as we ventured into the city before a rehearsal and BYGO’s final concert. The venue was the Palacio Figueroa, home to the Casino de Salamanca and located right next to the city’s Plaza. Despite noticing a conspicuous number of posters advertising the evening around the city, we were still surprised at the turnout, which filled the main hall to the brim.

The performance itself was exceptional: rearranged string pieces which have formed a significant chunk of BYGO’s material over the years were combined with a closing performance of excerpts from West Side Story, and in between all of that there were two stunning solo performances from orchestra leader Hani Elias, and his front row desk partner, half-Spanish Alex Caballero, who also doubled as our translator.

When the last notes of the encore died away and we filtered out of the hall, Alex was bombarded by questions and compliments from native speakers which he told me afterwards he couldn’t understand most of (he took the nod and smile approach). Meanwhile, Michael Button, a former student who now was back on the tour as a teacher, and remembered Steve’s first days as conductor, commented to me that the concert had probably been the best he’d been involved in with BYGO. We had set a high standard for the choir, who would have the chance to sing at an even more prestigious venue on the final night in Spain.

Dinner that evening was at El Bardo, a nearby inn, and there was a slightly lower mood as the tour was drawing to a close, not aided by the exhaustion of the guitarists. Nevertheless, the menu offered a diverse set of options, and the setting of the restaurant itself was innately interesting: adjacent to it was the Casa de las Conchas, a Gothic-style fifteenth century building adorned with 350 scallop shells in tribute to the Order of Santiago.

The subsequent day, we had the morning off to sightsee again, before the choir’s last performance at the ‘Cathedral Nueva’, the more recently built of the city’s two Cathedrals. Faced with a quiet and austere audience, BYC slowly but surely warmed the spirit of the chamber with a mixture of gospel and older religious pieces, complemented by Andrew McKenna on keys and an array of individual vocal parts that left the locals overwhelmed. Plaudits must go to all of those that stood up and sang solo parts, particularly Ricardo Fernandes who was first up, and Juliette Ashman who did so in spite of being bedridden with illness the previous day.

The last supper took place in El Zaguán restaurant, which offered a homely, dimly lit finale. The meal was followed by ‘awards’ given out by those students who were leaving for pastures new after this tour, a tour tradition, whilst the trip back to the hotel was accompanied by ‘In My Beer’ verses, another essential part of any Maestros tour last night, though the arrival of a patrolling police vehicle curtailed these all too soon (or perhaps at just the right time in the eyes of the staff).

On the short flight back to Heathrow Terminal 5, where the inevitable flash mob of the choir started up again, I had a chance to reflect on the tour as a whole. Whilst Germany 2014 was excellent as a first tour, and China 2016 will take some beating as a package (it was both more exotic in destination and for a more lengthy period of time), Spain was a magical setting, which lowered the curtain on my experience at Maestros in the best way possible.

I’d like to conclude this account with a special mention for BYGO’s conductor and director Steve Christmas (aka Festive Steve), who first taught me guitar when I was just 11 years old, as he led Reading Banditos at the time (a BYGO feeder group). He has since then moved through to the Head of Guitar role and recently became a Director at Maestros, and as such this was his last BYGO tour. He leaves behind a legacy of excellence for classical guitar in Berkshire, and has improved the lives of so many people through it. The picture below is of the packed out crowd for his last concert — he couldn’t have had a better send off.

‘Standing room only’ — the audience for Steve Christmas’ last concert as BYGO conductor

Berkshire Maestros has been a huge part of my life, and I know I speak for everyone for whom this was the last tour when I say that it has been incredibly emotional to end that chapter.

This tour was arranged by Acfea, who specialise in music tours for youth and amateur groups — you can find their site here: https://acfea.com/

If you’re lucky enough to live in Berkshire and want to get involved with Maestros, you find out more here: http://www.berkshiremaestros.org.uk/ — if not, look up your local music charity! It’s definitely worth a go.

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Alex West

Music mad since 1998 - formerly @URYMusic - Twitter: @agwestie