A couple of years ago I received a phone call at Madrid airport, where I was waiting with a colleague and a group of students for our flight to Paris for one of our exchange visits. The caller was Nick Todd who is now Assistant Director of Music at the King's School in Canterbury.
Nick’s call was to explain that his Madrigalia chamber choir of senior students had learnt the Misa Pro Defuntis by the Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Vitoria (ca.1548-1611), and he would like to arrange for the group to perform it in the setting for which it was composed, in Madrid. I agreed to do what I could and the call set the ball rolling on a fascinating musical adventure which concluded several months later with a spectacular performance of the piece by these wonderful young students, led by their expert and dedicated teacher.
Luis de Vitoria composed this music for the funeral of the Dowager Empress Maria, sister of Philip II of Spain. The site of the first performance was the convent Las Descalzas in Madrid’s historic city centre which remains in use as a convent which is open to visitors for a limited time each day and is not available for performances of the kind proposed. No amount of pleading by my Spanish colleague was enough to persuade the Mother Superior to change her mind, and I thought the project was going to flounder.
Then my colleague reminded me that Tomàs Luis de Vitoria was born in the walled city of Ávila and had sung as a boy chorister in the chapel at the St Thomas monastery in the city. He offered to approach the monks with the proposed concert. I had no idea that the chapel is in fact a large building which has been lovingly cared for, and which boasts an acoustic which inspired the composer in later life.
So, Plan B it was: Nick Todd and his group arrived on a morning flight, had lunch at school in Madrid and took a coach to Ávila in time for a rehearsal to catch the magic of the chapel’s acoustics. The concert had been publicised in Ávila and there was a large and appreciative audience who were privileged to hear a faultless performance of this complex work.
My students played a short introductory item conducted by my colleague: it was their first chance to experience playing in such a beautiful historic setting. For photos and historic information, see the city's tourism office.
The next morning the visitors made their way back to Canterbury: back to their commitments in national youth rugby and athletics teams and to their academic preparation, which for several of them meant Oxbridge entrance exams.
Over the years it has been a pleasure to welcome numerous groups to Madrid, many of them from the USA, and others fro Italy and the UK. You can read about these groups here as there are links to other posts and a report about a visit by Folkestra, a youth folk group.
Thank you Nick Todd, for your wonderful idea, and to your singers for bringing to life so spectacularly the music of Tomas Luis de Vitoria in a setting which was loved by the composer. This is surely one of the best chamber choirs I have ever heard.