Ahh…Cambridge. Named for the “Bridge over the river Cam”. In the same way that “Plympton” – the town on the river Plym, “Sidmouth” – at the mouth of the river Sid…I was starting to learn the endearingly quaint logic of the British.
The “Prayer of St. Francis” details some of the contrasts of a life lived fully:
Make me a channel of your peace,
Where there’s despair in life let me bring hope,
Where there is darkness – only light,
And where there’s sadness, ever joy…
It was in Cambridge that I first fully appreciated another contrast – the beauty of Spring.
I guess that you really need the “bleak midwinter” of the Christmas Carol – grey and crisp, steely cold – to value the incredible contrast that is the coming of spring, when the green shoots break through the hard ground. Many of the grass verges around the town are planted with daffodils, which appear in their golden splendor, but also, stunningly, fields and parks (and in Cambridge, the areas around the various Colleges and Chapels, known as “The Backs”) have bulbs hiding beneath, which explode in a rainbow of colour underfoot which are just glorious to behold.
In September, the population of Cambridge suddenly skyrocketed, as the incoming students outnumbered the year-round townspeople. As an historic town, the cobblestoned streets in the centre are two narrow for vehicles, so cars are banned and most people, students especially, ride bicycles. So the first order of the day was to find a 2nd hand bike so I could “do as the Romans do”.
Then my housemate Helen arrived home from lectures brandishing a flyer she had purloined from a Noticeboard calling for auditions for the Cambridge University Music Society Orchestra. “You should try out”! she stated brightly. “But, Helen, I’m not a University student!” I protested. “But it doesn’t say you have to be” she countered, waving the page at me. “But Helen”, I tried again, “as you took it off a Student noticeboard, only the students would be there reading it, wouldn’t they?”
I soon realised the futility of arguing with a lawyer-in-waiting so, realising I was beat; I applied for the audition, got out my violin and starting practicing Vitali’s “Chaconne”.
The audition seemed to go well; at last I didn’t disgrace myself. The following day a hand-delivered note requested my presence at a further audition. “I must just be on the borderline of scraping in at the back of the second violins,” I thought to myself. I fronted up again. Afterwards, much to my shock, the audition panel opened up and stated: ”We actually have two orchestras, and we are looking for a leader for the Second Orchestra. Would you do it?”
It was confession time. “You know I’m not actually enrolled at the University?” I asked. “Yes” they replied. “But you can play, and that’s what matters to us. How about it?”
So began my tenure as “Concertmaster” of the Cambridge University M.S. 2nd Orchestra, and my Tuesday afternoon pilgrimage to orchestra rehearsal. On my blue bike with violin strapped to my back, freewheeling at speed downhill to town, via “the Backs” of the colleges to join students from all around Britain, mostly studying Medicine, Law, Science or Engineering, but joining together to make fabulous music.
The wonderful world of music, regardless of location, very much operates on a “who you know” basis and the C.U. Music Society provided me with that valuable “foot in the door”.
Before too long, I was contacted by one Haig Utidjian, a British conductor of Armenian descent, but who, at the time, was studying Engineering. A fascinating and charismatic person of many talents, with that sense of intensity and eagerness often found in the intelligent and creative. Anyway, Haig was putting together the “Orchestra of the Cambridge University Beethoven Society” to perform Brahms 1st Symphony – was I interested? As this is one of my all-time favourite pieces, I was “In”.
And being “In” with Haig meant I was soon inveigled into his world of various “Societies” with important “Honorary Patrons” – partly to give a sense of importance to the letterhead, but I suspect also bestowing some type of status so that a “Scratch” orchestra which met up for a handful of rehearsals (and a scratch orchestra of “mates” in Cambridge comprised some pretty quality musicians) was able to utilise for such rehearsals and performances the University “West Road Concert Hall”.
Haig also directed a couple of chamber ensembles, such as “The Monteverdi Ensemble”. (Hi Kylie…would you like to perform Charpentier’s “Te Deum” with a Chamber Choir in Pembroke chapel?”…oh my goodness…Helen’s favourite piece she dreamed of for her eventual wedding…. “Yep, Haig, I’m in…”)
“ The Ensemble Duparc” was another of Haig’s endeavors. A chamber group, largely of strings but with a varied membership dependent on repertoire, the Ensemble existed officially “to further the appreciation of 20th Century French Music”. To this end, Haig had secured the Honorable Patronage of an esteemed elderly vocalist, Hugues Cuenod. This gentleman, I was told, was a distinguished singer of J.S. Bach’s music and was particularly praised for his interpretation of the Evangelist in Bach’s St Matthew Passion.
Over his long life, Hugues Cuenod had crossed paths with a number of European musical notables. For example, in1913, aged 11, he attended the 78th birthday party of Camille Saint-Saëns, and played piano duets with virtuoso pianist Jan Paderewski. Stravinsky had written a role for him (“Sellem”) in opera “The Rake’s Progress”. He’d rubbed shoulders with others such as Poulenc and Faure, and was personally acquainted with a variety of royalty including the Rainers of Monaco. In pre-war Vienna and Paris, Hugues worked with Nadia Boulanger (French conductor, composer and teacher – another hero of Haig’s), with whom he made a pioneering set of recordings of madrigals.
Haig was quite excited that Mr. Cuenod had added his weight to our fledgling chamber ensemble (and name to the letterhead).
Until it all caught up with us. A phone call out of the blue from an agent… “Mr. Utidjuan, Mr. Cuenod is currently in England and would like to come to Cambridge next week to hear the Ensemble of which he is Patron”.
Panic ensued, as we hastily booked rooms at one of the colleges, rustled up some catering for an afternoon soiree, and threw together some music to perform. The day came, all too soon, and the elderly gentleman was introduced. He seemed to appreciate our efforts and our small concert went off without a hitch, until the end, where Haig, never one to miss an opportunity, pressed a score into our guest’s hand and asked “Would you do us the privilege of singing with us”? Presented with a fait accompli, and with no opportunity to warm-up or rehearse, we read our way through the piece (a set of 6 songs for voice and seven instruments about animals) with which our special guest was long associated.
And so, even today, if you Google “Ensemble Duparc” you will find the note “In 1992 The Ensemble had the great privilege of accompanying the legendary Swiss tenor Hugues Cuenod in a performance of Poulenc’s Bestiaire in Cambridge”.
At the time, the ‘legendary Swiss tenor’ was 89. (As a side note, he holds a record of the longest career of any recorded vocalist or performer in history, giving his first concert in Paris in 1928, aged 26, and his last, later in 1992, when he was 90.). And only passed away in 2010, aged 108.
Also on the soiree program was Geraldine Hackett-Jones, Mezzo-soprano, originally from Adelaide and known by my Mum from years before, when she had performed at Goodwood Baptist church. (Yet more proof that the world is indeed very small). One of her selections was a European folk song, which she explained to the audience: “This might be a bit impromptu, as Haig taught me the Greek over the Phone last night”.
So, musically, I was having some amazing experiences.
Other times, I floated around the Seminary grounds. Sundays I attended the adjoining Resurrection Lutheran church, fairly soon finding myself on the Organist’s Roster.
Resurrection is architecturally a most interesting building, being essentially octagonal in shape, with the organ console on the back wall facing the altar, but with the connected loudspeaker being mounted on the wall above the entrance door on the wall at a 90-degree angle. With the result that, (proved by empirical experiment), only a person sitting in the middle of the third pew facing frontward got the true impression of the sound and volume of the organ, whereas the musician themselves could only guess (and gauge from the number of complaints afterwards). This was an interesting challenge to balance.
Otherwise I was reasonably free of churchly responsibilities, mainly maintaining contact with the Youth, some of whom I knew from Plymouth, and vaguely assisting in the hosting of a “Youth Rally” of youngsters from all over the country. This was memorable for a number of incidents, including adding one of the youth’s favourite action songs: “Shake a little hand, shake the hand next to ya” into the Sunday Divine Service with the regular worshippers. Each verse contained an instruction of greeting the person next to you. One verse advised, “Bump a little rump” which the Youth did. I happened to be sitting next to a rather staid and somewhat humourless senior Pastor, and got into the spirit of the Action song…well, you can imagine he was not overly impressed.
As a “Day Job” I attempted to sell Microwaves and Freezers for “Iceland”, at which I did not particularly excel, but that’s for another time…