Monteverdi in Cambridge

ExampleCambridge is a university first, and a city second. It is at its best when the students are in residence to counterbalance the tourists and language school students who take over in high summer. Last Saturday was a day to savour Cambridge. The weather suddenly changed from damp and grey English spring to something like high summer. The streets and open spaces were thronged with students enjoying the miraculous sunshine while taking a break from studying for exams, and the Backs were crowded as a mixture of students and early tourists took out punts.

We walked down Silver Street, along the river and back across Clare Bridge. Despite having seen it so many times we marvelled again at that most uplifting of views, Kings College Chapel viewed from across the river. The buildings are magnificent, but it is the students that make the city. This is the city of Rupert Brooke (who as a founder member of the Marlowe Dramatic Society allows me to insert a contrived link to my Infinite riches in a little room post) , and Silvia Plath (who was at Newnham College in 1955/6 on a Fulbright Scholarship, and whose husband Ted Hughes was at Pembroke College, but not at the same time as Plath). Ralph Vaughan Williams studied here, as did singer/songwriter Nick Drake who was at Fitzwilliam College for six months of his too brief life in 1969. See my posts Smile Why It Has Been , A Troubled Cure for a Troubled Mind and Improvisation for more on Nick Drake. If you are tempted to try his music, as well as his own CDs I highly recommend jazz pianist Brad Mehladau's Live in Toko album which has treatments of two Drake songs on it, Things Behind the Sun, and River Man. This album is the overgrown path that got me into Nick Drake.

Cambridge was pivotal in the Early Music revival. From Edward J Dent’s (who was a don at King's) pioneering presentations of Handel oratorios and operas in the 1920’s. Through Boris Ord’s work with King's College Choir (whose repertoire he expanded into Tudor polyphony) and the University Madrigal Singers, to figures such as Thurston Dart. I have the Neville Marriner Academy of St Martin's recording on LP of Dart's wonderful, but controversial, performing edition of the Brandenburgs, and what performers! - including the late and much lamented David Munrow on recorder. Munrow read English at Pembroke College, and next year is the thirtieth anniversary of his tragic and untimely death; a fate he shared, alas, with Nick Drake, Sylvia Plath and Rupert Brooke. Let's hope for some more Munrow reissues next year, and wouldn't a biography be wonderful? (Pliable Feb 2007 - alas there was no biography, but there was this Overgrown Path tribute.

Sir David Wilcocks helped establish the current world class standard of the King’s College Choir, while St John’s College Choirs has also established an enviable reputation. Two current stars of the Early Music scene (who were in Norwich for our Festival) also have Cambridge connections. Violinist Andrew Manze read Classics at Cambridge, while keyboard virtuoso Richard Eggar was organ scholar at Clare College. Composer John Rutter (who I touched on in my post Lux Aeterna ) also studied at Clare (as of course, did Nick Drake). James Wood, the composer of the opera Hildegard which was the subject of my post Hildegard comes to Norwich via IRCAM and Darmstadt was also an organ scholar at Cambridge. Fiona Maddock, whose book on Hildegard of Bingen inspired James Wood's new opera on the same subject (see my post Hildegard comes to Norwich via IRCAM and Darmstadt), was at Newnham College, while BBC broadcaster and journalist Andrew Marr (see my post I am a bringer of Truth and Enlightenment) was at Trinity Hall. All of this extraordinary cultural and musical heritage is underpinned by a vibrant university and town music scene, with a calendar of performances that is simply breathtaking in its range.

One of my favourite publications is the Cambridge Concert Calendar. This is published three times a year, and is essential reading even if you don’t live in England, as it gives a marvellous snapshot of life in this most musical of all cities. The current calendar for the Easter Term 2005 covers the period from the end of April to the end of July. It has 54 pages, and there are four concerts to a page – that is more than 200 different events to choose from.

On this weekend the concerts included a celebration of the music of Henri Dutilleux in Kettle’s Yard on the Sunday followed by a symposium on his life and music; and a Baroque programme in Robinson College Chapel on Friday. Monday brought a trio of Indian classical slide guitars and tabla in Emmanuel United Reformed Church in Trumpington Street. (It is wonderful how these place names evoke Rupert Brook’s poem The Old Vicarage Granchester.... At Over they fling oaths at one, And worse than oaths at Trumpington). And on Saturday the riches included a centenary concert remembering Cambridge composer, critic (he is the author of a fine book on the Beethoven Quartets) and academic Philip Radcliffe in King's College Chapel, with the Fitzwilliam Quartet (formed by graduates of the Cambridge college of the same day in the 60's, also Nick Drake's college, a nice crossing of overgrown paths) performing a string quartet by him. The following week Anglia Opera staged performances of Britten's rarely heard Paul Bunyan in the Mumford Theatre auditorium of Cambridge's new Anglia Polytechnic University. (Which allows me to link to my two Britten posts, Easter at Aldburgh and A direct line to Britten.) If you want a real taste of musical Cambridge the Cambridge Concert Calendar is just £2.50 plus postage from Gail Dubbyne at dobbyne at It will give you a picture of the rich musical life of this wonderful city even if you can’t make it to the concerts.

We were in Cambridge for music making by the students, Monteverdi's Vespro Della Beata Vergine of 1610 sung by the University Chamber Choir directed by King's College graduate David Lowe. The performance was in Sir George Gilbert Scott's majestic 19th century St John's College Chapel. Two weekends and two exquisite performance spaces. Last week the Scandinavian simplicity of Norwich's Swedenborgian Chapel (see my post What a Facade! , and now the High Church splendour of a Cambridge College).

This was powerful Monteverdi, sung with gusto and youthful vigour, but also with precision and purity of tone. The University Chamber Choir comprises thirty-two singers; eleven soproanos, eight altos, six tenors and seven basses. What a joy to see such a youthful (and expert) choir, and also so many young faces in the almost capacity audience. (The ageing of the audience for classical music seems to be unstoppable, like mobile phones and i-Pods).

Is it a lute on steroids? No, it is a chitarrone competing with the serpent in my Size does matter post for the largest instrument on the blog award. It also gives me a reason to link to my post about fantastic jazz pianist Michel Petrucciani, this was one of my favourite posts but it created zero reaction, but on the basis his size didn't matter I'm trying again.

The Baroque players (comprising freelance professionals) were suitable 'authentic'; three cornetts, two tenor sackbuts, a bass sackbut, two violins, a cello, organ, and a wonderful contribution from Dai Miller playing the chitarrone. During the interval, after the Lauda Jerusalem, we wandered out into the quadrangle of the College. The night was like black velvet, and unseasonably warm. We had that increasingly rare feeling that all is well with the world, and that Sir Peter Maxwell Davies can relax (see my post A Musician with teeth). The future of 'serious music' is in safe hands with these young musicians.

Note - this performance took place on April 30th. The sheer volume of posts about Norwich Festival events forced me to hold it over.

If you enjoyed this post you may like Lux Aeterna (and not Ligeti)


Pliable said…
I was listening to one of my favourite Radio 3 programme on Sunday - Private Passions. This is a kind of up-scale Desert Island Discs presented by Michael Berkeley (son of Sir Lennox). The weekly programme is well worth catching - see BBC Radio 3 Listen Again link from sidebar. Guest this week was broadcaster Humphrey Burton. Not only did he go to Cambridge, but he also reminded me that conductors Roger Norrington and Sir John Elliot Gardiner did as well.

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