New York Tour 2014 – a trip to remember

25 May 2014

The excitement began on Saturday, 12th April when Leeds and Newcastle singers met up for the first and only joint rehearsal prior to our trip to New York in eleven days time. As Leeds had only performed their concert the day before (and were still on a high!) with Newcastle only two weeks before that, the rehearsal was a mere formality with all 160 singers in great voice! And what a sound they made… it was obvious even then that New York was in for a treat!

The day of travel finally dawned, when a total of 200 people eagerly boarded their coaches to Heathrow with the Leeds group departing their home town at the, to some, unearthly hour of 5.30am! Newcastle followed some two hours later, bound for a later flight.

After an uneventful flight on our Virgin Atlantic 747 which, on paper, took only 2 hours 40 minutes but in reality nearly eight, we finally touched down in Big Apple country! There to meet us was Pauline, our friendly tour rep who guided us efficiently to our coaches en route to the Excelsior Hotel, our home for the next five nights.

Many of us took advantage of our extra five hours by heading straight out to explore or to suss out the local bars and restaurants before finally heading back to the hotel in readiness for our first engagement the following day. No drinking for a lot of us in the bar that night. Not that night anyway…

Breakfasts were fun! In order to cater for 200 people it had been agreed that we would be split into four separately timed sittings according to which coach we had travelled on the day before and this would rotate daily. Some people benefited by a leisurely lie in on their first morning with a dining time of 8.30am. Pity those then with a 7am breakfast!

As the hotel rarely catered for such large groups, we were surprised, but soon got used to eating off paper plates and coping with the plastic cutlery! But for some, attempting to cut through the crispy bacon rashers resulted in more than one utensil snapping in half, not to mention the melting forks whilst trying to retrieve ‘stuck’ toast! And as for the bagel slicer! Not much cause for them in our homes eh? Once instructions on its looks-complicated-but-dead-easy-really use had been passed around we were away with the best of them… cream cheese anyone?

All fed and watered we eventually boarded our coaches for the short journey to Central Park, this being the best option at keeping people together to arrive together, for a brief rehearsal at the Naumberg Bandshell. The weather was fabulous, the choir sang with gusto and the audience appreciative. It was amazing just how many people stopped to listen, most of them holding up phones, cameras and other recording equipment in order to capture the moment. It’s nice to think that someone somewhere will have gone home and announced to their family, “Gee, I was in Central Park and came across this awesome choir… just watch this!”

The rest of the day was free until our evening performance at St John the Divine Cathedral – a totally different atmosphere but no less joyous. This was hosted by Liz Green from BBC Radio Leeds who we had brought with us! Liz hosts the Leeds concerts and is a great fan of Inspiration so was delighted that she was able to accompany us to New York and with her mum too!

Never before have the choir sung anywhere with such wonderful acoustics. The line in ‘Music Of The Night’ that goes ‘close your eyes let your spirit start to soar…’ really lived up to its title with the last note soaring up to the heavens and taking a good few seconds to die away. Spine tingling.

David Miliband, head of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) introduced us and spoke a little about the work of the IRC so the penultimate song ‘Let Their Be Peace On Earth’ was particularly poignant. There must have been more than a few lumps in the throat at the sight of 160 hand held candles being raised aloft to the final words in a darkened Cathedral.

Next morning after the second rotation of breakfast sittings and more melted/snapped cutlery we were on our way to the Statue of Liberty. Three coaches departed on time from the hotel, the fourth suffering a severe delay resulting in a race against time to reach our 11.00am check in time. But we made it and all was well.

For many it was their first ever visit to the great lady and there was ample opportunity to wander round, take a few more hundred photos of every angle of her and gaze across at the iconic skyline of Manhattan and the famous Ellis Island to our left. But not before we gave another spot performance under the flagpole – this time ‘Anthem’ (‘I cross over borders…’) and the Hallelujah Chorus. More photographs! More videos! We could get used to this.

The evening gave us chance to dress in our finest ‘civvies’ (not that we mind the black with a splash Gary!), for our much looked forward to Broadway performance of The Lion King. Wow! What a fantastic spectacle! The colours, the acting, the animals, everything contributed to making it a not to be missed show. And how glad we were that we were there to witness it. And on Broadway too!

Saturday saw us making our way to Times Square where it was hoped that all 160 singers could sneak unseen onto the red steps and sing the final minute and a half of our Lion King medley. As surreptitiously as possible, the army of red and black forced other tourists gently aside to take up our positions. After four helpful starter notes from Gary we were OFF!

What a fun, fabulous experience! Except that the lone security guy was already alerting ground control to a ‘Code 74 on the Red Steps’ (maybe it should have been renamed a Code 160!). But hero Mark saved the day, gauging how long it would take until we ‘found our place on the path unwinding’ and keeping the chap talking just long enough to avert an increase in security or arrests being made and we romped home to triumphant applause from the hundreds watching, who evidently enjoyed such a rare spectacle. The final word comes from the officer himself who, despite saying our singing was awesome, just ‘couldn’t let it show on his face’.

Our second appointment that day and slightly less nerve-wracking for our leader was in the Merkin Hall at the Kaufman Centre, another ticketed performance, twelve numbers long, where we were ably accompanied by Andy and Mark who, as usual, played magnificently. It’s only on seeing the video clips later that you realise just how much they put into their playing and how professional they are.

But earlier than this, a surprise awaited us at rehearsal. Whilst final preparations were being made to the risers, our Liz quietly slipped on a pair of tap shoes and stepped onto the stage. “I’m rubbish” said she, “but something I’ve always wanted to be able to say is that I’ve tap danced on Broadway” – and she was away! Rubbish Liz? Not on your life! You did yourself proud, executing some nifty little steps there and the thunderous applause you received from us all was well deserved. Good on you!

Sunday dawned just as sunny as the rest of the week had been and many of the party would not be objecting to the early breakfast in order to get to the shops that much sooner. Because we had FREE TIME! Free time that is before our lunch at the Hard Rock Café in Times Square. How nice it was to sit down and relax with our friends, enjoy the meal and take just a few more photographs.

We had even more free time in the afternoon before heading back to the hotel in order to get changed into performance gear for our final sing. But no ordinary performance this. The one venue in the world that most people will have heard of is Carnegie Hall.  Whether they will ever go there or not, the very name will be as familiar as Sydney Opera House or La Scala, Milan. And we were being given the opportunity of singing our hearts out on that very stage.

A very brief rehearsal of positions was almost all there was time for before we were shepherded back to the ‘holding area’ to await the arrival of the audience and then before we knew it there was a nerve-wracking period of stair queuing before we found ourselves walking across that famous stage to take up our positions. Gary, Mark and Andy were introduced, the opening chords began and the final song of our wonderful trip began – the Lion King medley.

Having seen the show only two nights before, the words now had so much more meaning than before. We gave it our all, never taking our eyes off Gary who led us through the performance like the consummate professional that he is. There can’t have been one of us who was not aware of just how much this experience meant to him. And it showed on our faces and in the way we sang.  As the final notes died away the whole place seemed to erupt, with people leaping to their feet in an instant standing ovation, clapping and whooping as only American audiences can! How we basked in their glory! How we so didn’t want that moment to end! What a finale to our fabulous New York Trip of a lifetime!

Inspiration perform in Central Park Inspiration perform at St John The Divine, New York Inspiration perform at St John The Divine, New York Inspiration perform at Merkin Hall, New York Spot performance on Ellis Island