Whilst travelling up to Oxford to work with students in the last few weeks, I’ve also been in Cambridge to do roughly the same things. Of course, in both places the surroundings are wonderful and the students amazingly talented. But the most striking feature for me this time was the brevity of the official teaching term, eight weeks only, and the hour-by-hour diary madness it caused. You would need to be a very on-the-ball student or teacher to keep up with it all. In Oxford’s music faculty I repeatedly met people who had been teaching for nine hours at a stretch, or since seven in the morning, or something like that. And meanwhile, when fixing necessarily short appointments with students I marvelled at their busy schedules on any given day. There might be subjects with spare termtime hours for reflection, but music is not one of them.
There’s a similar congestion in concert giving, which was brought home to me in Cambridge, as I stepped out of King’s College to attend, yards up the street, a concert of my own music; and bumped into the BBC Singers who, with the BBC Concert Orchestra, were just entering King’s Chapel to perform an entirely different concert at exactly the same time. (You can at present hear it on iPlayer; it includes a substantial new work by Thomas Simaku. I would have enjoyed being there.) There were doubtless a good many other Friday night concerts also just about to start in other colleges.
Once I’d got over my surprise at seeing my London colleagues in Cambridge, and reached the venue for Cambridge University New Music Ensemble, I was impressed by these students’ stamina in performing, under Patrick Bailey, eight exacting modern works. Those frenetic university weeks must build up the music muscles. Along with the pIeasure of hearing some of my own most recent music, I particularly enjoyed the artistic juxtapositions of The Pedlar of Swaffham by Jeremy Thurlow, a stoutly heartwarming folk tale in a super-syllabic setting sung by Donna Bateman. It was accompanied by the Ur-modernist and therefore un-folklore-ish instrumentation of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire: flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano. A takeaway from this concert and its rehearsals was the utility of this instrumental grouping which has been the default ensemble for a whole century’s worth of music, and continues to offer new possibilities. Thanks to Richard Causton for putting this complicated event together and somehow etching it into the diaries of all concerned.