Brexit through the gift shop: in Paris, the show must go on. British choir Tenebrae at Sainte-Chapelle


This blog is named after the Morrissey song Throwing My Arms Around Paris. Curiously, I couldn’t find any public commentary from that sharp-tongued Mancunian about this week’s dumbfounding news that Britain is set to leave the safe, loving arms of the European Union. So I mentally rifled through his catalogue. Panic [on the streets of London] is somehow comforting; National Front Disco rather worrisome, and Your Arsenal downright chilling- “You wonder how we’ve stayed alive ’til now…We may seem cold, or we may even be / The most depressing people you’ve ever known / At heart, what’s left, we sadly know / That we are the last truly British people you’ll ever know.” And let’s not forget that Moz is a drape-himself-in-the-Union-Jack kind of guy.

In the end, I think Gilbert & Sullivan got it right in 1878 and not much has changed since. Topsy turvy indeed.

With all my expat friends (on both sides of the Channel) reeling from the morning’s referendum results, I reminded myself that there was nothing stopping me from throwing my arms around Paris as usual. Brushing Morrissey and G&S aside, I opted for solace at the breathtaking medieval Sainte-Chapelle, where the superb British chamber choir Tenebrae were to perform under bewildering circumstances.

Sainte-Chapelle is the place in Paris that reminds me, perhaps more radiantly than  any other, just why I traded Bondi Beach for Haussmann’s boulevards; and why I’ve fought so hard for my place in Europe. You hardly need to set foot on the distinctive coloured tiles of the Upper Chapel to fall under the spell of the vaulted blue ceiling with its gilded constellation of regal fleurs-de-lys. Or bask in the light of soarng wall-to-wall stained glass windows, the oldest in Paris.

At Sainte-Chapelle, the London-based choir Tenebrae and their director Nigel Short were the first Brits I came face to face with in the aftermath of Brexit. And they had prepared a glorious feast of Renaissance and contemporary music from countrymen Henry Purcell, Thomas Tallis, Gustav Holst and John Tavener. (All this around the central work on the programme, the Allegri Miserere mei, and the in situ premiere of Eric Whitacre’s work Sainte-Chapelle, inspired by and named for this very church.)

Photo by Jérôme Prébois

Photo by Jérôme Prébois

Rather than facing the audience to begin, the 16 singers and conductor positioned themselves behind us, directly underneath the ornate circular ‘rose’ window. This freed up our eyes to drink in the splendour of the light catching the intricacy of every glass panel as the harmonies of Alonso Lobo’s Versa est in luctum enveloped us.

Choristers were sweating. You could hear the church bells and the sirens. But the stress melted away along  golden threads of polyphony. For the Burial Sentences of William Croft and Henry Purcell, they solemnly processed down the aisle to the front of the nave. I wondered if the end of an era and an uncertain future weighed heavily on them, casting darker shadows on such tragic music? If it was with heavy hearts that they sang ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away’? It was all very dramatic, anyway.

Throughout the lead-up to Brexit, the questions that plagued me had been of the self-absorbed variety: “Will there still be Marks & Spencer in France? Will I have to compete with a flood of English girls looking for a marriage of convenience?” But it was in this gothic church that I felt more acutely than ever before the true impact of this unfathomable turn of events and the sense of loss, shame and alienation many of my expat friends have expressed.

This deeply moving concert was presented by the Festival Paris Mezzo, whose founder Michèle Reiser certainly made the British guests feel welcome in her opening speech: “We understand more than ever now in Paris that a concert is an act of resistance,” she affirmed. “Concerts are about living in harmony together.”

Good luck Britain, from Paris with love.

The full concert was filmed for and will be broadcast Wednesday 29 Juin, 8.30pm.