My time in the land of academic robes, ornate chapels, and storied dining halls began with a boy choir, which is ironic since this sabbatical has been carefully designed to focus on female-male choirs. Sometimes, however, irresistible opportunities present themselves, and that was the case with an evensong at Jesus College, Cambridge. The chapel is tiny, and it appeared that most of the attendees were proud parents of the boys. The choristers sang beautifully, with the older boys leading and holding the music for the younger boys. It was the first of repeated examples of centuries-old traditions of musical mentorship.
The Not-So-Tiny Exeter College Chapel, Oxford
The next morning we attended a church service honoring benefactors of the University. The donor list began with kings and queens in the 1300’s. The St. John’s Voices, a mixed ensemble that complements the college’s men and boys choir, sang nicely. My favorite moment, however, was when the guest speaker, a woman who has performed important work with refugees in the UK, looked up in the choir loft and said, “We all know that Cambridge’s greatest treasure is its choirs.“ Bam.
Another encounter with St. John’s Voices took place at a rehearsal for an "invitational" evensong featuring the college group with a choir from a local (middle?) school. The cordial, but businesslike tone of the rehearsal (They had a lot of music to get through!) was set by director, Graham Walker. Again, mentorship.
The next day I sat in on the first of several rehearsals and evensongs at Trinity College, Cambridge. Trinity sits at the top of the Oxbridge musical pyramid in terms of professionalism, and they did not disappoint. In terms of process (The singers are incredibly fast at learning and polishing music), beautiful tone, and sensitive musicality, they are simply remarkable. Their director, Stephen Layton, leads with efficient, single-minded focus on the music. In person, he is warm, funny, generous, and gracious. It is so very nice when one’s heroes from a distance remain heroes when in close proximity.
From Cambridge, we moved to Oxford, in spite of Stephen Layton’s, “Why would you do that?” (He was joking.) Oxford is the locale for many Harry Potter scenes, and it was commencement week, so the streets were full of academic gowns and banners. It was also difficult to get into a restaurant, and the pubs were brimming, but Rick Weber was not to be deterred, and we managed to eat well nevertheless.
The place where, according to legend, Bill Clinton did not inhale
One of many Oxford highlights was getting together with a UH Moores School Alum, organist Chris Holman, and his wife Cynthia. Chris is working on his doctorate in musicology and also directing the Exeter College choir. It is not unusual for an organ scholar/student to conduct one of the college choirs. As a director from another college said, “The system works if you get someone like Chris, but, too often that organ scholar is an undergraduate with no experience.”
Chris and Cynthia Holman
In 1985, I spent several weeks in Cambridge observing men and boy choirs exclusively, and I was struck then by the similarity in approach. On this trip, however, in addition to focusing on male and female mixed choirs, I made a point of reaching out to lesser-known programs. In so doing, I gained an awareness of the variety of Oxbridge’s choral tapestry, which, after tradition, is its most important strength.
I am told that some choirs have annual budgets in the hundreds of thousands of pounds, bolstered by endowments established in the Renaissance period. Other choirs have budgets of only a few thousand. The choral philosophies and ambitions of the colleges differ widely as well. Some choirs welcome singers from across the university, while other choirs only accept singers from within their college. Some choirs welcome novice singers, while others require professional-level skill and talent, and even then, supplement student singers with professionals. The happy result of all of this variety is that, if a student really wants to sing, there is almost certainly a choir for them.
In the midst of all of the variety, one constant is that there is only limited music coursework offered and, then only in musicology and organ, so there are almost no music majors in any of these choirs. No singer receives credit for participation. Another constant is that, among the directors I observed, the level of instruction is high. One example is William Dawes at Somerville College, Oxford. Somerville has eschewed the traditional evensong and, instead, offers weekly Choral Contemplations featuring speakers and music from a variety of philosophies and traditions. Because Remembrance Sunday was approaching, his students were working on the Fauré Requiem, a challenging piece for them (as it is for everyone). Will used student organists and soloists, and I loved hearing the progress of the music over the course of that single rehearsal.
I also very much enjoyed our final Oxbridge stop, which was at St. Edmund’s College, Oxford. Composer and conductor, James Whitbourn, is a relatively new hire, arriving just in time for Covid to strike. The work he is doing there with his student singers is impressive. He wants the choristers to have a meaningful musical experience, but says, “What these high-achieving students do not need is more stress.” We were privileged to watch evensong there on Remembrance Sunday, and the musical highlight for me was James’ own “Eternal Rest,” which the students clearly loved as well.
St. Edmund's College Courtyard
James and I had met briefly in Houston, which is one reason I sought out his choir, and he was kind enough to invite us to attend a black-tie Formal Hall. Rick came prepared, and I gussied up a black pant suit. For faculty (and the Webers), the evening began with sherry in the garden, followed by white wine in a beautiful faculty lounge. Then, the “vice principal,” after describing dinner’s seating arrangement, led us into the college’s large, candlelit dining hall where the students were already seated. (Yes, I felt like Professor McGonagall without the hat.) The students all stood as we entered. (This will probably not become a new UH tradition.) The choir sang grace, and then the vice principal took out a huge gavel. He hit it against a sound block creating a huge “Thwack!” Everyone sat, and a multi-course dinner with wines commenced. It was lovely and delicious. The choir sang a benediction at closing. Out came the gavel once again, and “Thwack!” our wonderful time at Hogwarts came to a symbolic and actual close.
Next stop — Birmingham!