Oxford University and Windsor Castle – and a farewell dinner

Our last full day in England — and it was pretty incredible, as we took in two top sights — Oxford University and Windsor Castle — and finished up with a farewell dinner for the whole crew in London.  We’re packing tonight for a rather early start tomorrow, as we need to get loaded up and out to Heathrow to catch our plane.  So here, in pictures, is our day!  Remember – I’ve been taking literally hundreds of photos every day, so when we return we will figure out how to give you access to all of them so you can share them.   OCYSO staff will be in touch with you on that.  See you soon!!


Entering Oxford. we passed the famous Eagle and Child pub where “The Inklings” writers’ group — including J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis — often met.


View of Christ Church College, Oxford



OCYSO members watiting to enter Christ Church College, Oxford


Medieval fan vaulting on ceiling in Christ Church College, Oxford.


OCYSO members on the “Harry Potter Staircase” (seen in the films) in Christ Church College, Oxford.


Also used as inspiration in the Harry Potter films: “The Hall” (dining hall or refectory) in Christ Church College, Oxford.


South transept window of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford: St. Michael and angels battling a red dragon.


Window in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, by the 19th-century pre-Raphaelite Burne-Jones.


A thoughtful pause in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.


The high altar, carved and painted wood, Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.


Tom Tower and Tom Quad, Christ Church College, Oxford.


OCYSO students in Tom Quad, Christ Church College, Oxford.


Heading to the Bodleian Library, Oxford.



One of our two great guides, Jan, tells us more about Oxford.


Exploring Oxford, cameras at the ready.


Pondering the history of Oxford .


Oxford landmark the Radcliffe Camera, now part of the Bodleian Library.




Get off the beaten tourist track in Oxford and you’ll find plenty of quiet streets.


Brasenose College, Oxford.


A peek inside one of the locked colleges at Oxford (most are not open to the public).


Group photo (of half of OCYSO, the “Bernstein” bus) in front of the “Bridge of Sighs” at Oxford – a copy of the one in Venice.


Pan figures on a building on St. Mary’s Lane, Oxford.


A boss (a shield at the joining of a groin vault) showing the crest of Oxford University.




Windsor Castle, one of the Queen’s royal residences.  (She was not there — she spends August at Balmoral in Scotland.)


The “Long Mile” at Windsor Castle.


A spot of tea with Maestro Wachs and Concertmistress Phoebe Kim near Windsor Castle.


Farewell dinner in London – Maestro Wachs thanks the students for a fantastic concert tour of England!



Covent Garden, Royal Albert Hall and the National Youth Orchestra Proms concert

This morning we had the rare chance to sleep in a little and enjoy a leisurely breakfast, as our buses didn’t leave until 10:30 a.m.  When they did, it was off to Covent Garden, London’s old market area where once vendors of fruits, vegetables and flowers plied their trades (remember Eliza Doolittle of Shaw’s “Pygmalion” and Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady”?  She was a Covent Garden flower seller before she learned to “speak proper English”!).  There we had a couple of hours of free time to shop and sightsee and grab lunch.   We arrived there early enough to beat the crowd that came later – tourists and locals all jostling to look at the wares on sale and enjoy the many street performers (there’s a 500-year tradition of buskers, or street performers, in Covent Garden — nowadays you have to be good enough to get a license to busk, so the standards are pretty high!).  Nowadays the wares on sale in Covent Garden tend more to be the likes of Chanel and Jamie Oliver than fruits and veg, although there were also a lot of very good artist-craftspeople selling their handmade work.

I grabbed a latte and some eggs benedict at an outdoor table (since I’d taken full advantage of sleeping in and had skipped our hotel breakfast) and watched our students happily wandering around and enjoying the buskers (a quartet playing Vivaldi and a costumed Yoda who seemed to be levitating were especially popular).  Then it was back to the buses for a trip further west in London, to the Royal Albert Hall.

The Royal Albert is one of the great performance venues in the world, and one of the largest concert halls, seating 6,000. Completed in 1871, this massive round building was based on Roman amphitheaters and was dedicated by Queen Victoria to her late husband, Prince Albert.   She so grieved over his death (he died of typhoid in 1861, at the young age of 41, after they had been happily married for 21 years and parented 9 children) that she dedicated many things around London to him, including the polychrome tiered monument in back of Royal Albert Hall.  The Albert Memorial houses a larger-than-life gilt bronze statue of Albert, topped by a black-and-gold spire and surrounded by mosaics, enamels, wrought iron and more than 200 sculpted figures.  Victorian ornamentation at its most over-ornamental – you can’t take your eyes off it, though, and the students were fascinated by it.

We went inside the Royal Albert for a treat: the chance to hear the final rehearsal of the National Youth Orchestra and National Youth Choir of Great Britain before their Proms concert this evening.  They spent time fine-tuning their performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (which is having a big year – it’s the 200th anniversary of its premiere, which happened right here in London!) and then rehearsed their world premiere performance of noted British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage’s “Frieze,” a work inspired by Beethoven’s Ninth.  OCYSO, of course, will be performing the West Coast premiere of the Turnage piece next season, so everyone listened to it with a great deal of interest.  It’s a dense, lively work that looks to be a challenge, but OCYSO is proving on this tour that they’re up to the challenge of practically anything.

The composer, Mr. Turnage, was present at the rehearsal and came over to say hello, chatting with Maestro Wachs and giving a shout-out to the students. It was very nice for all of us to meet him.

We took a brief break for a tasty barbecued chicken dinner in the Royal Albert’s cafe-restaurant, and then it was back into the hall to watch the Proms concert.  The concert was also filmed for BBC broadcast, so hopefully audiences in the U.S. will get the chance to see it.  It was THAT good — the Turnage and a work by Vaughan Williams were impeccably performed, and the Beethoven, of course, blew everyone away.  For us, it was also an eye-opener to see that huge hall almost completely filled — nearly 6000 people, then — for a youth orchestra concert, including the “Arena” area on the ground floor. which was packed with shoulder-to-shoulder standing audience members.

Then it was back to our hotel – we’re up early tomorrow for our scheduled excursion outside London, to Windsor Castle and Oxford University.  So look for what will probably be the last blogpost of the trip tomorrow.  Hard as it is to believe, our time in London is almost over and we’ll be on our way home soon!

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The students get a chance to explore and shop in Covent Garden, one of London’s oldest and most famous covered marketplaces.


Covent Garden – Apple Market Hall (there were no apples – lots of craftspeople stalls and places to eat, though).


The Royal Opera House, home of the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet, adjoins Covent Garden.


Best souvenir from Covent Garden: giant pencils!


Pub sign near Covent Garden, referring to famous actress Nell Gwynne, who once worked at the Drury Lane Theatre.


OCYSO poses in front of the ornate Albert Memorial.


And– turning them around the other way, the students pose in front of (well, really in back of) Royal Albert Hall.


OCYSO listens intently to a rehearsal inside Royal Albert Hall by the National Youth Symphony.


The National Youth Symphony of Great Britain rehearses for Sunday’s evening show.


Maestro Wachs (middle) greets composer Mark-Anthony Turnage and Royal Philharmonic Society executive director Rosemary Johnson.


In between courses at the Royal Albert Hall’s cafe-restaurant, where we had a barbecued chicken dinner.


Maestro Wachs (right) ran into OC Philharmonic Society president Dean Corey during an intermission reception.

A sensation in Southwark

Today (Saturday, August 10) we were up and on the road fairly early to get to Southwark, a district of London just on the south side of the Thames at the foot of London Bridge.  Southwark Cathedral is a very ancient site, with parts of it dating back to the 12th century.  For the Millennium celebrations in 2000, a massive renovation was carried out, with some areas of the medieval church enclosed in modern additions, a spacious Millennium Courtyard, meetings rooms and a gift shop.  There’s a fascinating cutaway archaeological view showing the many layers that exist under the present cathedral, all the way back to Roman times.

The OCYSO students, already dressed in their concert attire, scattered about to warm up, and then Maestro Wachs led them through a rehearsal to hear how they sounded in the welcoming Gothic nave of Southwark Cathedral.  The rest of us wandered around to view the many interesting elements of this beautiful place of worship, which only became a cathedral (the seat of a bishop) in 1905.  Its treasures include the wooden effigy of a knight from the late 13th century, and a chapel dedicated to the memory of John Harvard, founder of Harvard University.  I find particularly poignant, in these old churches, the grave or memorial markers of people who would otherwise never be known to us — in so many cases, it’s a husband or wife dying young, and sometimes numerous children dying in infancy or at very young ages.

But these shadows flew away as the orchestra began its concert.  Although it was well advertised, the verger told us that often, at this cathedral, people outside hear the music through the open doors and are attracted to come inside and sit and listen.  Indeed that seemed to be the case — as soon as OCYSO struck up “Sheherazade,” more and more audience members started wandering through the doors, until the nave seating was pretty much filled and people were standing around the side aisles.   This was a noontime Saturday concert at the peak of tourist season, so we were definitely one of the big tourist attractions in Southwark today.

The concert earned a long and enthusiastic standing ovation — Maestro Wachs later told the students it was probably the best concert they’ve ever played, and they did sound completely spectacular!

Afterward, everyone was given free time to wander in the Borough Market next to the church — there’s been a market there since medieval times, and it’s still a fresh gourmet foods, meat, fish and produce market to reckon with.  I stood in line at the Kappacasein stand — a maker of cheese sandwiches and raclette (a Swiss dish of melted cheese over potatoes and pickles) and bought the tastiest grilled cheese sandwich ever! Another stand was selling French black truffles and inviting one and all to lift the lid and sniff the magic.   There were fish stands with fish and shellfish straight off Cornish dayboats, fresh Angus beef, every color of egg imaginable, and rows and rows of fresh produce stands.  One could spend half a day or more there, but our next stop was the Tate Modern, one of Britain’s great museums, and a bit of free time there to wander the museum or see other sights in the area.

Next was a proper fish-and-chips dinner at the Hispaniola restaurant, which is located on an old Thames excursion boat moored across from the London Eye. Then, after a brief trip back to the hotel, our guides took us all on a walk through nighttime central London.  We strolled en masse (through masses of London revelers out on a Saturday night) to magnificent Trafalgar Square, and then to Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus.  After a little exploring and souvenir shopping, we walked back to collapse at the hotel after a long and very good day.  Tomorrow is our Royal Albert Hall experience and meeting Britain’s National Youth Orchestra!

An exhilarating day — and night!

Friday dawned rainy and grey — a typical London day, as a matter of fact (very UNlike the clear blue skies we’d been enjoying up to now).  But we had some major sightseeing planned, so after our hotel breakfast we boarded our two coaches, “Bernstein” and “Rimsky,” and set off for the South Bank of London,  (The breakfast room seems to be getting more crowded by the day, it seems, with fellow guests, the majority of whom seem to be Eastern European — I’ve chatted with Russians, Hungarians and Romanians so far — but there’s an abundance of food for all.  In fact, if you grab a good protein-y breakfast at the hotel, you can pretty much skip lunch, I’ve found.  But maybe that’s just me…!)

By the time we reached the South Bank (the opposite side of the Thames from Parliament) patches of blue were peeking through grey and black clouds, and though it threatened rain and actually sprinkled on us a few times, we lucked out and just got a nicely dramatic sky for photo-taking.  Our morning’s missions: to take a cruise down the Thames, followed by a ride on the giant observation wheel, the London Eye.  The Thames cruise, operated by the same company that runs the London Eye, takes you briskly down the river from the Eye to Tower Bridge, and then back, with a lively guide pointing out the sights.  My only quibble was that they focus so much on the historic sights, like the Tower of London and St. Paul’s, but give rather short shrift to all the exciting new architecture that’s rising all over the city.  Cranes and massive skyscraper projects seem to be everywhere (and a city “on the build” would seem to be a good economic sign…).  But aside from a few mentions of the Shard and a few others, scarcely a word about the “new” London.  Ah, well, it’s probably not what most tourists come to see – but a little balance might be good.

A brief break for lunch on our own (or in my case, since I’d had my big breakfast, souvenir shopping – I need my refrigerator magnet from all major trips!  I used to collect fat pencils, and then those beautiful Danish-made pens with the moving thingie inside the gel — but I’m down to just fridge magnets now…older but wiser…).  Then the whole group lined up in a long but pretty fast-moving queue for the London Eye.

OK, the Eye.  It’s the world’s largest observation wheel (as it’s properly called; NOT a Ferris wheel) at 443 feet tall.  The thing is very impressive, especially from the ground looking up.  It’s cantilevered out toward the Thames, held in place by two cables anchored in a nearby park.  Built for the Millennium celebrations in 2000, it was so popular that it has remained and has become another of those great icons of London, a bit of lighthearted fun right across from the staid old Houses of Parliament.  Each of its 32 glass pods can hold up to 30 people, and it turns slowly but continuously (you hop on while it’s moving).

So we all hopped on, filling up several pods with blue-jacketed OCYSO members and staff.  It’s a wonderful, slow, smooth ride up and up for about 15 minutes, then a few minutes at the very top for the best view of London anywhere — miles and miles of it spread out around you, but most notably all the landmarks right across the river in Westminster and adjacent: Big Ben and Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace and St. James’ Park, Old Scotland Yard, the Treasury, the Admiralty, Trafalgar Square and more.  Down the river you get a grand view of St. Paul’s and all the way down to the Canary Wharf area.  Then it’s another 15 minutes or so down the other side of the wheel.  We all snapped plenty of photos, photos of ourselves taking photos, and photos of the OCYSO folks in the adjacent pod taking photos of us.  The weather had brightened considerably by then, so all photos probably turned out very nicely.

After that, it was back on the buses for the drive to West Dulwich Cathedral, in the Lambeth borough of south London.  We passed through some very diverse and exciting areas of South London. with shop and restaurant names hailing from Africa, Jamaica, Afghanistan, Portugal, India and many more places of origin.  As our guide Jan pointed out, London has always been a melting pot of varied nationalities, but possibly more so now than ever.

We arrived at West Dulwich Cathedral, tucked in a residential area of Lambeth, to find a very interesting church indeed.  In 2000, a fire destroyed the roof and facade of the church — so the congregation raised funds to restore it.  But rather than restore in to its historical appearance (ne0-Gothic), they rebuilt the roof and facade in more modern style, resulting in a light and airy church that feels old yet contemporary at the same time.  And, it turned out, a church with GREAT acoustics.  If we thought Bristol Cathedral was good, with its marble reverb echoing away to a dying fall amid the high groin vaulting, West Dulwich seemed to go one better with a bright, lively reverb that turned out to be perfect not only for the orchestra but for our partner performers in this night’s concert, the South London Jazz Orchestra.

We rehearsed for a few hours in the cathedral, then broke and walked about 10 blocks to our dinner at the local Rosendale Pub.  In the pub’s upstairs room, we enjoyed beef burgundy over rice (a veggie tagine for the vegetarians) and cheesecake or banana cream pie-ish cake (a concoction they call Banoffi cake).  Then it was a quick walk back to the church to get changed into concert attire.  The crowd was already flowing in — another capacity crowd for us.  (And a word about British audiences  – they are very, very polite.  No snuffling or loud coughing, no rattling of candy wrappers, and most notably, not even a single clap of hands in between movements — proving to (ahem) American audiences that yes, it can be done…respectful, attentive, gracious audiences who read the program and are there to hear the MUSIC, not to applaud like penguins whenever a movement ends.  OK, rant over…).

All of our concerts, by the way, have free admission but have also been planned to benefit local charities by asking the audience for voluntary donations.  Tonight’s charity was L’Arche, a worldwide organization that assists adults with disabilities (coincidentally, Chapman University honored the local OC branch of L’Arche with this past year’s Schweitzer Award of Excellence), and a number of their clients attended the concert tonight (exhibiting, it must be said, the same exemplary audience behavior mentioned above) and loved it.  In fact, it was a night to love on many levels, from the great performance of both the “Sheherazade” and the “Candide” by OCYSO (which won them an enthusiastic standing ovation) to the second half’s rousing performance by the swingin’ South London Jazz Orchestra (led by Bob Bridges, an American and a sort of dead ringer for Hollywood’s Beau and Jeff, but not, he swears, any relation at all…).  The SLJO made Maestro Wachs an honorary member of their ensemble (gifting him with one of their official T-shirts), much to the delight of the OCYSO members.

Then, as the SLJO swung into Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood,” Bob invited audience members to feel free to get up and dance in the aisle.  A few of the L’Arche clients got up and were happily dancing away by themselves, when a bunch of our OCYSO women got up and ran over to dance with them.  And then some OCYSO men got up and began to boogy, too — and pretty soon the whole aisle and side aisles of the cathedral were filled with dancing OCYSO and audience members.  It was a magical moment, totally unexpected, and perhaps a moment of release and exhilaration for our students, tired and yet full of energy, happy with their performance and the company of a warm audience and other fine musicians, and just ready to let those high spirits soar in a moment of sheer exhilaration.  The dancing went on through several numbers — Teren has posted some iPhone video of it on the OCYSO Facebook page, and I’ll try to figure out how to post it here as well.  The video will give you an idea of it, but for those of us who were there, tonight is pretty much what it’s all about when it comes to kids and music education — the joy of music made real and immediate, and a moment none of us will ever forget.


In line for the Thames River cruise



Gotta get those pix of Big Ben!


OCYSO members enjoy the Thames cruise.


The London Eye – an impressive sight.


Our cruise took us right under Tower Bridge.


In another line – this for the London Eye.


In line for the London Eye.



In line for the London Eye.



In line for the London Eye.


Mr. Shaffer with his tux bag, a convenient tree, and a banana.




Taking a few selfies aboard the London Eye, with all of London at their feet.


Big Ben (properly called Queen Elizabeth II Tower) from the London Eye.


Our pod people aboard our pod on the London Eye.


Arrival at West Dulwich Cathedral – the modern rebuilt facade replaced part of the church burned in a fire in 2000.


Rehearsal inside West Dulwich Cathedral – the cross on the altar is made of charred wood from the burned part of the church.


Maestro Wachs leads the rehearsal in West Dulwich Cathedral as Mr. Shaffer listens intently.


Maestro Wachs is welcomed by Mark Bennett, the Mayor of Lambeth, and Kathleen Boyle, who runs the Lambeth branch of L’Arche, the charity benefited by audience donations at tonight’s concert.


OCYSO performs to a sold-out crowd in West Dulwich Cathedral.



OCYSO members and L’Arche clients dance in the aisle to the music of the South London Jazz Orchestra, as the Mayor of Lambeth looks on.

Triumph in Bristol

Thursday (yesterday) saw OCYSO off on our longest road trip of the excursion — a jaunt by bus out to Bristol, one of Britain’s historic western seafaring ports, where the orchestra had a concert scheduled that night.  It was another lovely, sunny day as we boarded the two buses and headed out through beautiful countryside to our first stop, the ancient and mysterious Paleolithic sacred site, Stonehenge.  Dating back to 3000 years before the birth of Christ, Stonehenge remains an enigma — there are plenty of expert theories as to what it was built for and what ritual function it had, as well as HOW it was built (many of the monolithic stones came all the way from Wales — probably floated down the river and then rolled on timbers to the location — but again, no one knows for sure.  It certainly is impressive, though, and the students thoroughly enjoyed it — we were able to spend an hour there, circling the monument (which is fenced off now, so no one can go right up to it).

From Stonehenge in the chalky fields of Wiltshire, it was another two hours through more lovely landscapes (especially as we came through the Mendip Hills) to breezy Bristol, where the orchestra unloaded right near the tall Gothic Bristol Cathedral, on its hill commanding the city.  After a brief lunch break, Maestro Wachs led the orchestra through a detailed rehearsal (our first since arriving in England) to get the sound just right.   And wow, did it sound spectacular – there is just something about a medieval Gothic cathedral that intensifies the sound and lets it gently linger (the kids were advised to sit silently and not move or reach for their music as the reverb echoed — just a moment to let the audience savor…).

A dinner break, then, to walk down to the city’s famed “floating docks” for dinner at the Bordeaux Quay restaurant — a tasty and well-presented concoction of shredded ham hock with spring veggies, which tasted better than it sounds.  (With a veggie option for the vegetarians, as always…).  Then it was off to get dressed for the concert.  An enthusiastic and large crowd arrived, including the mayor of Bristol and other dignitaries, and the concert was a triumphant success!

I’d write more and post pix, but we’re off this morning (in a light rain, alas) to the Thames river cruise, the London Eye and our concert tonight in West Dulwich Cathedral, so more later if all goes well!