I am sitting on a train from Zilina, Slovakia, to Prague, Czech Republic. It is the first time in a long while that I haven’t been busy experiencing things! So, a lot to catch up on. I will probably do it out of order, because some things I won’t remember for long. (For the sake of the blog’s order, though, I will publish the stories in chronological order.)
I’ve probably never sang in such an acoustically-perfect space as Ely Cathedral, where the Nordic Choir sang on Tuesday, the 29th. We moved out of Kensington Close Hotel and drove to Ely, a small town north of London, and set foot in their magnificent church. Unfortunately, the back half of the cathedral was dominated by businesses, who had set up informational tables around the back and sides. I couldn’t help but think of Jesus angrily turning the tables in the Temple in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, but perhaps the business is necessary to maintain the house of worship.
We sang in a side room, with giant windows and gray stone walls that were bare except for a statue of the virgin Mary, dressed in bright blue, standing over the altar with her arms raised high. But despite its separation from the more elegant main hall and its spartan appearance, the room had breathtaking acoustics. In fact, this resonant space is a favorite recording venue of many professional choirs, including the King’s Singers and Polyphony. We felt very fortunate to record a recital there. I wish I could have savored it even more, because I will probably never sing in such a perfect space again.
Next, we drove to Cambridge for another guided walking tour. Like Oxford, it has many independent colleges with beautiful courtyards, and a history of many famous people who studied there. (I took a picture of Desiderius Erasmus’s dormitory window. For those who don’t know, Erasmus was a Christian humanist thinker during the Protestant Reformation, who famously debated Martin Luther about free will. I gave a presentation on it.) We saw the punts on the river Cam, little boats that are moved along the water by a guide with a pole that he sticks in the riverbed. In general, I liked Cambridge much better than Oxford: it’s more laid-back and (as I discovered the next morning) has a lot of open green space.
Our walking tour ended at Trinity College, where we gathered in the Chapel for a clinic with the legendary choral artist Stephen Layton. I expected that this man, the director of the prestigious Trinity College Choir and the professional world-class ensemble Polyphony, would be more intimidating and harder to work with than Bob Chilcott was. I was very right. Layton, gazing intensely at the choir through his bug-eyed glasses, clearly had a brilliant sense of the sound he wanted and knew how to draw it from the choir; but his conducting was square and without passion, and instead of verbal feedback, he merely gave the choir goofy and somewhat ambiguous demonstrations of the sounds and vowel shapes he wanted, stopping us rudely and abruptly until we got it just right. In some ways, this minimalist style of directing was very effective in drawing our focus and using time, but it was also frustrating and sometimes misleading.
But the most startling experience of the master class had nothing directly to do with the music. At one point, perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes in, he looked back and saw our tour coordinator, Eric Ellingsen, recording a video of the master class on his iPhone. Although Layton hadn’t clearly voiced an issue with recording, he freaked out. He stepped off the podium, and muttered, “I can’t do this.” We were all terrified that this had been the last incomprehensible straw, and that we had unwittingly offended or irritated him so much that he was walking out. However, he went and sat next to Dr. Hightower in a pew, quietly whispering away as the choir stood frozen, silent as rocks, hearts racing from confusion and embarrassment.
Layton came back to the podium and explained what he failed to articulate at the beginning of the rehearsal-- that he believes photographing or recording rehearsals detracts from the intimacy of music making for its own sake. A fair point, I thought, but not an appropriate reason to freak out and scare the shit out of a guest choir. He rehearsed with us for perhaps ten more minutes, and then finished what had been a short-lived and horrifying experience for all of us. Although he had promised that “we could take all the photos and HD whatever we wanted after the rehearsal,” we only took one group picture. No one else dared even touch their cameras.
The choir quietly went and sat in the pews, waiting for the next event: a 45-minute rehearsal by the Trinity College Choir, followed by an hour-long evensong. (An evensong is a choral service given in Anglican churches in the early evening. It is customary in the chapels of Oxford and Cambridge Universities, as well as most English cathedrals.) The Choir, comprised of thirty undergraduate students at Trinity College, was excellent: we could tell from their rehearsal that they were incredible music readers, and so could learn tons of difficult repertoire in a year. Not to mention, they all had pretty outstanding voices.
After the service, we returned to our hotel for a group dinner and conversation about the bizarre master class. Dr. Hightower made a point to toast Eric Ellingsen, who handled the Layton’s unfortunate reaction with grace. After the choir jokingly demanded a “toast acceptance” speech from Eric, I was surprised and moved when, with tears in his eyes, he told us how special it had been to hear us in Ely Cathedral, and that working for the Luther music department (his alma mater) was a dream job. It was a poignant ending to an interesting day.
Random travel notes:
Don’t forget your white undershirts at home. Or your blue button-up shirt, a versatile part of your wardrobe.
Have your own alarm clock. Never depend on others to wake you.
Asking questions is almost always a good idea! Except to Stephen Layton.