King’s College Choir’s latest album: A Year at King’s

The venerable Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, has recently put out a new album of a capella works that give a tour through the liturgical year that is the life blood of the King’s College Chapel.  They may be known internationally for their tours and dozens of recordings, but week in and week out in the chapel they sing evensong most days of the school term, as well as services on Sunday mornings.  The amount of repertoire that they cover in a year is phenomenal.  (Think of it: choral responses, a sung Psalm, a choral setting of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, and an anthem for each evensong service.)

Stephen Cleobury, the college’s director of music since the early 1980s, has put together an interesting program of old and new: two of Arvo Pärt’s “Magnificat” antiphons; a new setting of the familiar Christmas Carol “Away In A Manger” by Sir John Tavener.  (As it happens, I was present in Cambridge for the first performance of the piece at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s on Christmas Eve 2005, so I have a personal nostalgia for it.  It’s too bad that I don’t think it’s that great a piece.)  There are also new performances of old favorites: the Allegri Miserere and Thomas Tallis’s 40-voice motet Spem In Alium Nunquam Habui

The sound of the choir is not as perfect in blend as I have heard them in the past; however, this album in enjoyable and it is a nice souvenir of the music that one would hear in the mighty gothic chapel in Cambridge.

Back to London

Tuesday, December 27, 2005–Cambridge to London. On Monday night, Tessa had told us that six inches of snow were expected overnight. When we got up on Tuesday morning, we had not had six inches, but there was a light dusting on Jesus Green and it was snowing steadily. Such beauty to look out the door and see it coming down, knowing that I did not have to drive in any of it. (Europeans don’t know how lucky they are to have workable train systems.)

After breakfast I went out to do a few errands. On Christmas Eve I had bought a U.K. SIM chip for my T-Mobile phone, so that I could more economically make local phone calls, pay-as-you-go. Well, somehow in the process I had ended up losing my USA T-Mobile SIM, which would mean that I would have to get a new one for my phone when I got home. I thought it was worth going back to the T-Mobile store to see if it had turned up there. I am sometimes an extremely lucky person, because the SIM had fallen out onto the floor of the shop and was still there three days later. As it turned out, I ended up going to a stand in the farmer’s market and getting my mobile unlocked and I bought an O2 mobile SIM, which is what George has. They have a plan that allows for cheap international calls. I also needed to exchange some underwear I’d bought at Marks & Spencer. After my weight loss in the last year, I definitely do NOT need extra-large. The exchange was painless.

At noon George and I went to the Fitzwilliam Museum to see a fabulous special exhibition of illuminated manuscripts. I think that every library in the city had been emptied of their treasures to put on display. One book went back to the 7th century. The highlight of the show was the Macclesfield Psalter, which had come onto the market a few years ago and been bought by the Getty Museum; however, the British authorities halted the purchase and invoked a law that allowed a British consortium to match the price to keep the volume in the U.K. It is a book native to East Anglia, so there is good reason for it to be in Cambridge. It is in the process of restoration, and has been disbound, so a large number of the leaves had been mounted a framed. It was therefore possible to see much more of the volume than had it been bound and just open to a couple of facing pages. It is a remarkable volume.

We came back to the flat for a bite of lunch, then got packed up to take the train back to London. Tessa gave us a ride in her car to the train station, and we got there just in time for a 6:00 train. We were at King’s Cross shortly after 7:00. We put our things down in our room at the Montana, then walked to Covent Garden for dinner at a French bistro on Wellington Street (across from Penhaligon’s) that we had tried last week, but it had been packed. Not busy at all this night. Among other things, I had some real, quality French onion soup–not the nasty stuff you get in most restaurants in the States. We were able to walk back to the hotel. (“What did you do on your trip, Tim?” “Spent the whole time walking back and forth to Argyle Square.”)

Boxing Day

Monday, December 26, 2005–Cambridge. The day after Christmas–Boxing Day–is almost as big a holiday in the U.K. as Christmas. Almost everything was closed again. It was sunny and crisply cold outside. For a change, we didn’t have any social engagements during the day, so we hung around the flat all morning, then about noon we left for a long walk around the area of Cambridge where we were staying. We ultimately made our way to the other side of the River Cam and followed the path along the back of the colleges. Very scenic–all we were missing were the cattle that browse the pasture in the summer.

Very few stores were open today, and most were the British branches of American concerns (The Gap, Borders). We looked around briefly in Waterstone’s Bookshop, but then headed home the long way around Jesus College and back across Jesus Green to Park Parade.

We were invited to dinner at our friend Tessa Gardner’s home, just down the street. She is a very gracious host, and I always look forward to seeing her and experiencing her hospitality. (Although she described dinner as her “leftovers”, they were better than most “first times”…. cold roasted stuff duck, roasted chicken, a lovely soup, and a salad with chicory and sliced oranges.) We stayed and chatted until well after midnight.

Christmas Day in Cambridge, all is quiet

Sunday, December 25, 2005 — Cambridge. Christmas Day dawned bright, sunny, crisp–a gorgeous day. We were again invited to King’s chapel for their 11:00 sung Eucharist. As we walked to the chapel, the streets were deserted and no traffic–only a few people on their way to church. (Unlike the United States, in England, everything closes down for Christmas, including transportation, so if you need to get somewhere you either have to walk or drive yourself.) Jim had already arranged the seats, so we met him at his rooms, along with his other guests, one of whom, Michael, George knew from a party at Derek and Rory’s in Washington.

The crowd had again queued up for admission, but not quite in the same numbers as Christmas Eve for the carol service. We were again ushered to the choir. Today we were on the Cantoris side, but not directly behind the choir, so the blend was better, and still a good view of Mr. Cleobury. The choir sang the Mozart Spatzenmesse for the Ordinary of the Mass. The congregational singing was Christmas carols. The place was packed again. The chaplain gave a rousing social-consciousness sermon in the person of Herod.

Jim’s entourage was going for a pint at the local pub, The Eagle. I wanted to take more pictures of the chapel in the bright sunlight, so I went out to do that. Christmas is one of the few times that the great west doors of the chapel are opened, so I was able to get a few shots of the interior and the organ. (Photography is not usually allowed in the chapel.) As we were getting ready to leave, Stephen Cleobury was heading back to the Gibbs Building, so Jim introduced us to him and mentioned that I was an organist from Cleveland. Mr. Cleobury and I had a brief conversation about Karen and Chick Holtkamp. (Karen is Cleobury’s artist manager in the U.S.)

A few drinks later, we got back to the flat about 3:00. We made a courtesy call at Tessa Gardner’s house to deliver some Christmas gifts from Derek and Rory. She introduced us to her guest, a lovely lady named Sylvia. We had a short time of civilized chat, then excused ourselves to come back and start our own Christmas dinner.

George took responsibility for the roasted pheasant, although in the process he managed to set off the smoke detector, to very loud noise. It is a fancy wired system, so taking a battery out was not an option. I did discover the buttons on the annunciator panel in the front hallway how to re-set the system and turn off the alarms, so we did not end up with the Cambridge Fire Department at our doorstep.

Besides the pheasant, the rest of the menu included roasted, smashed garlic potatoes (thanks, Nigella Lawson for the recipe); Brussels sprouts with chilis and garlic; a cranberry/port wine sauce (thanks, Sainsbury’s). The starter was smoked salmon, very mild, and we had our fancy steamed chocolate Christmas pudding with the liquid chocolate center for dessert.

We finally finished dinner about 10:30, and then washed dishes, so it was after midnight by the time we were able to go to bed.

Christmas Eve at King’s College – Miracles do happen…

The alarm went off at 7:15 AM so that we could make preparations to get into the queue at King’s College for the Festival of Lessons and Carols. Enrobed in our silk long underwear, corduroy trousers and heavy sweaters, scarves, coats and hats, we were in line by 9:00 AM. The King’s web site informed us that those in line before 10:30 were likely to get in. They start letting people in at 1:30 PM for a 3:00 PM service. The crowd was jovial. We had people from Somerset in front of us and a couple from Ottawa behind us, who just came in from London for the day to attend the service. The porters at King’s kept “scrunching” the line to get more people into the courtyard. Our friend Tessa Gardner came along to say hello to us while she was out on her errands.

About 11:00 Jim Trevithick came along, shopping bags in hand, and found us in the queue. While out on his marketing errands he ran into Martin Rees (that is, Lord Rees, the Astronomer Royal and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge) who told Jim that he and his wife were not using their reserved tickets for the carol service. Jim told us that he was going to go find the King’s Chapel Administrator and see if he could arrange things for us to use the vacant seats. “Don’t get too excited,” he said, “because I don’t know if I will succeed.” And off he went.

About twenty minutes later he came back with a white card bearing the King’s College letterhead, with a handwritten note from the Chapel Administrator, “Please admit two guests of Jim Trevithick to the choir stalls.” WOW! A miracle! It could not have been a better outcome–not only would we be in the chapel for the service, but right up with the action.

At that point, there was no reason to stand in line anymore, so we went to Jim’s rooms for coffee. He then had to start cooking the food for his Christmas lunch, so we went shopping. Back to the flat briefly, then at 2:30 met Jim and we were escorted into the chapel, into the choir stalls (past the hundreds of people who had waited outside all day). We were seated on the Decani side of the choir, in the row behind the basses and altos. I had a perfect view of Stephen Cleobury, the Director of Music, as he conducted the choir. (Very interesting to watch: minimal gestures, and unlike many choral conductors, he never “mouths” the words.) In point of fact–and not in any way to seem ungrateful for such an extraordinary opportunity–where we were sitting was not absolutely the best place to hear the blend of the choir. But who cares, here was little Tim Robson from Scranton, Iowa, in the famous King’s College, Cambridge, Chapel for the even more famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. How could I be indifferent? It was truly an amazing experience.

After the service, I realized that a gentleman who had been wheeled in in a wheelchair shortly before the service was Stephen Hawking, the great physicist and cosmologist. The commissioned new Carol for the service (a setting of “Away in a Manger”) was by Sir John Tavener. (Not one of his greatest efforts, in my opinion.) He was seated on the other side of the choir. Sir David Willcocks was seated in the upper level on the other side next to Jim Trevithick. As we were filing out after the closing organ voluntary, a gentleman let us go before him. George and I were walking away, and then I realized that the man was Francis Pott, the composer of the commissioned closing organ voluntary, an “Improvisation on ‘Adeste fideles'”. So I turned around and said, “Excuse me, are you Mr. Pott?” He said, “Yes, I am, do I look particularly guilty this afternoon?” We had a brief chat, in which I said how much I admire his music, but how hard it is to come by in the U.S. and that it is not performed as much as it should be. The new organ word is brilliant, very difficult, but made a strong impression.

We were invited back to Jim’s rooms for champagne, joined by Jim’s guest, a lovely gentleman named Peter. We were later joined by the King’s chaplain, Richard Lloyd-Morgan. About 7:15 they all went to dinner in the King’s dining hall, and George and I came home, happy with our great good fortune of the day. I fixed Indian dal soup for Christmas Eve supper along with some excellent venison sausages from Waller’s.

The rest of the evening was spent quietly at home.

A grand shopping day in Cambridge

Friday, December 23, 2005 — Cambridge. The day was spent doing the various shopping tasks before everything closes down for Christmas: a trip to the farmers market for veg, then to Marks & Spencer for the Christmas pudding (and underwear and socks, on sale). In the afternoon there was a trip to Waller’s Master Butcher shop to pick up the pheasant for Christmas dinner, plus pork pies and some paté.

Later we went for drinks at the Gibbs Building in King’s College with Derek’s friend Jim Trevithick, a fellow in Economics at King’s. Very pleasant and entertaining. He had other plans, so he let us go about 5:00. Another quick stop at Sainsbury’s before we came home for the evening. Preparation for dinner of pork pies, mash, green beans.

Moving on to Cambridge

Thursday, December 22, 2005 — London – Cambridge. I hadn’t slept well, so it was a struggle to get out of bed, but we needed to get packed up and checked out of the hotel, so that we could go on to Cambridge. We left our luggage in the hotel’s closet and went out for a walk. Upon seeing a sign directing us toward it, on a whim we went to the Charles Dickens House Museum in Bloomsbury. It was a house that Dickens had lived fairly early in his writing career. Not a great museum, but the sitting room was decorated for Christmas in Victorian style, so it was mildly entertaining.

We retrieved our luggage at the Montana and walked the block to King’s Cross station. We caught the 2:15 fast train (i.e., non-stop) to Cambridge and were there by 3:30. We picked up a taxi to Park Parade to our friend Derek’s flat, lent to us for the next few days. It is a charming place in a wonderful and convenient location overlooking Jesus Green.

I wanted to visit my favorite music store, Brian Jordan Music, and I was afraid they might be closed, so we walked over there late in the afternoon. George left me to browse while he made a trip to Sainsbury’s (supermarket) for food supplies for the next few days.
Dinner was considerably less glamorous than in London–a trip to Pizza Express (although several steps above the usual pizza restaurant in the U.S.) I spent the rest of the evening on my Christmas card writing project.
The weather is cloudy, relatively mild temperatures, but with a damp, chilly breeze. Glad I have a warm woolen coat and a scarf. (Earlier in the week I had insisted on a trip to Marks and Spencer in London so that I could buy a stocking cap to keep my head warm.)

New Carols from King’s College

I’m somewhat hard-pressed to think of another choir with as many recordings or as wide repertoire–especially in these hard times for the classical recording industry–as the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. The choir continues its tradition of being among the most-recorded choirs in the world with their latest recording on EMI, On Christmas Day, a compilation of Christmas “carols” (most of us would think of the vast majority of these pieces as “anthems”, because they are largely extended choral works, as opposed to the generally strophic and simple “carols”) commissioned by King’s Choir’s director Stephen Cleobury since he arrived at the Cambridge in 1982. The King’s Choir is noted for their annual “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” broadcast on BBC and worldwide–NPR in the U.S. Each year Mr. Cleobury commissions a new carol from a prominent composer. The composers represented on this two-disc set are the cream of the crop of contemporary music: Peter Maxwell Davies, James MacMillan, Lennox Berkeley, Harrison Birtwistle, Arvo Pärt, Thomsas Adès, Stephen Paulus, Robin Holloway, John Rutter, Jonathan Dove, etc. I am especially fond of Bob Chilcott’s “Shepherd’s Carol” and Stephen Paulus’s “Pilgrim Jesus,” but almost all of the carols can be recommended. The overriding feature of the works on these discs is the incredible virtuosity of the King’s College Choir–their sense of pitch, rhythm and style are unsurpassed. Several of the carols are published (Chilcott and Pärt among them) and are not out of the question for moderately skilled U.S. church choirs. If you want a disc of Christmas music that is out of the ordinary, this is the one I’m recommending for this year.