Wow! So much to cover and such a short period of time. Let’s see if I can get to some of this. First off, I’m rather surprised I even got to these universities in the first place. It was such a blessing to go to each of these places and drink in what they have to offer.
First, Oxford – It wasn’t what I was expecting. First, the entire university isn’t just one body, it’s divided into smaller colleges (St. John, Magdalen, New, Corpus Chrisi, Wadham, Kings, Queens, etc.) that have their own chapel, living quarters, halls, and studies. Also, I was expecting it to be a campus set aside from the town, but I found just the opposite. The university and the town are indivisibly woven into each other. There’s a college here, and a college there with a number of shops between them.
I had the opportunity to sit in on rehearsal with the choir boys of New College. It was remarkable. 8 to 12 year olds all together singing the treble part of whatever piece they were learning. They knew what key the piece was written in and what key they were choosing to sing it in. They knew which marks were editorial and how to tune certain intervals. There’s nothing like this in America. One of the highlights was hearing them rehearse “Lift Thine Eyes,” by Mendelssohn. Unbelievable.
The highlight of the entire trip was being able to sing with one of the college choirs for an Evensong service. We’ve got some really sweet hook ups into a lot of different colleges there (Thanks Ruth!). I had the opportunity to sing with St. John’s College Choir. We pretty much showed up and hour before the service, learned the program (including Anglican chant), and then started learning some of next week. I was impressed that they all could sight-read so well. It must have rubbed off or something because I started sight reading better! Next to me was another bass named Rory who helped show me the ropes. Without his help I would have been completely lost. I was really glad that one of the pieces had the same words as a song we did in BYU Singers this year, and the other one was “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say,” the same version we did with the combined choirs at BYU. Way to take a load off my mind!
Between rehearsal and service we had tea in a common room. It was a great way to get a bit of food, water and socializing in before singing. An interesting part of the service was that before and after we went out to sing the service in the chapel, there was a prayer and a blessing. It’s a part of the service you never get to see unless you’re apart of it. And I guess, if you’re doing this week in and week out it becomes routine for you and might not be as novel as it is for us. After the service we had a wee reception in the chapel and then dinner in the hall. They sang a blessing (that was more like a Verdi opera chorus then the Tallis cannon we learned) and then ate. We had a great time chatting with the students and learning what they do and why they choose to do it. They really are a keen bunch. I found them to be really open, warm and friendly. Awesome people.
Next, Cambridge – We have only spent a day here so far (as opposed to three in Oxford), but already, it’s an engaging place and very attractive. It’s much like Oxford in the sense that there are different college with the town woven in. We got to walk around a bit and felt that the place was really bright and open with a really good feel about it. We took a punting tour down the River with great guide and had a blast. The punting tour essentially shows you nine of the colleges that sit on the river. I found Cambridge to be a bit more bucolic then Oxford (which is always a plus in my book).
After our punting trip and our walk around the place, we went to rehearsal and Evensong with Trinity College Choir conducted by Stephen Layton (who conducts Polyphony). It was a great choir with a really fantastic repertoire. They sang the “Nunc Dimittis” by Arvo Pärt (LOVED IT), “O Vis Aeternitatis” by Frank Ferko (a new favorite) and a new unpublished piece by Stephen Paulus called “Little Elegy” (Uh-mazing). They sounded really amazing, and are definitely up there on the list of choirs I need to get to know better (along with Tenebrae, Elora Festival Singers and The Holst Singers).
Sadly, we didn’t have much more time besides that. On the way to Cambridge we found a US Memorial a few of the troops who died in the European Theater, many from the air force who were shot down over the sea. It was a moving experience. I really want to go back there.
One thing that I noticed with both choral experiences is that most of the what choirs ever do is church music. Literature specifically written with a church service in mind. They see very little secular repertoire, if any at all. I found that very peculiar to me since I find myself about half and half with the sacred and secular lit. I can’t see myself giving up either. Then again, with so much focus on church music, they know it all and have a vast amount of it.
Sorry for the long delay and hope I can write more soon. Just having a blast here! I highly recommend it.