Artistic Director John William Trotter Reflects on his Sabbatical at Cambridge University - Chicago a cappella

One of the great privileges of my professional life was the opportunity to spend the Michaelmas and Lenten terms (summer 2019 to spring 2020) at the University of Cambridge as a Visiting Fellow. To be sure, Cambridge is a pleasant place for anyone who enjoys choral music, architecture, history, geography, literature, classics, law, philosophy, cosmology, interdisciplinary conversation, libraries, rain, cycling, evensong, beer, compline, port, comforting food, or outdoor markets. However, for someone like me, who loves all those things, it was a dream come true. 

As an (extended) visitor, I experienced outstanding hospitality. Musically and culturally enriching experiences abounded, coupled with opportunities to interact with learned experts on nearly any topic. I enjoyed immense freedom among the colleges, libraries, seminars, museums, rehearsals, and concerts. During the residency, I taught choral conducting to Masters students from all over the world, led performances, and lectured on cultural leadership in graduate seminars and interdisciplinary working groups. Opportunities for study, participation, and enrichment were so numerous that, for the sake of sustainability, some mornings I would look at myself in the mirror and say “today, I will NOT take advantage of EVERYTHING Cambridge has to offer.” 

There is not space to describe my experiences in Cambridge fully, but a few sketches may help. For about nine consecutive months, I never once held a steering wheel in my hands. I learned the truth of the saying that there are over a hundred libraries within a ten-minute bike ride of central Cambridge. I attended performances by candlelight in the depths of winter. My family and I were even able to welcome guests ourselves, “punting” down and up the River Cam, then walking our visitors to the Orchard Tea Garden in Grantchester. 

I will never forget the privilege of accompanying a guest at the jaw-dropping moment at which they cross the threshold of a great chapel for the first time. The acoustics of the Cambridge chapels (among other cathedrals and churches) are an essential ingredient of the English Choral Tradition. Repertoire and architecture evolved together, over centuries, to produce a trove of choral works somehow managing to be both unassuming and transcendent. 

Due to the role of the college chapels, nearly all the choral repertoire I experienced live in Cambridge was sacred. Closely accompanying these experiences were daily doses of English wit – that subtle and humanizing practice so closely connected to both humo(u)r and poignancy. These interactions are reflected in the secular music you will hear on the Cambridge Concert program, wrapped in cleverness and fun, while never straying far from genuine pathos. 

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