In a conversation with his brother Bill, I overheard John jokingly refer to Cambridge, England, where we now are, as “Starkville with medieval buildings.” Starkville is, of course, Starkville, Mississippi, the home of Mississippi State University. I knew what John meant, as both are college towns surrounded by green pasture lands. But, Starkville with its religion of football and Cambridge with its stately King’s College Chapel and rich history, could not be more different from each other.
Cambridge, both the university and the city, are set apart from other communities in so many ways. The history of the city goes back to Roman times, but the university dates back only to the early 13th century as sort of a spin-off of Oxford. Cambridge University has long been world renowned for excellence and has produced 107 Nobel laureates, a multitude of leaders of countries and organizations all over the world, writers, academics, and entertainers as diverse as comedian John Oliver and Radiohead bassist Colin Greenwood. It is also home to numerous museums, including the exceptional Fitzwilliam, a real jewel-box with remarkable collections of porcelain and antiquities, in addition an impressive painting and sculpture collection including works of Rodin, Monet, Degas, Cezanne, and other luminaries. It’s an enjoyable place to spend time as well because it isn’t a mob scene as are so many famous museums.
I spent time in Cambridge every summer for ten years, from 2006 through 2015, as a team member on a training program sponsored by my employer. The experience of being part of this program and in this city created some of the best memories of my career. There was so much I enjoyed in those summer visits: charming pubs, bucolic green spaces and gardens, historic buildings, and punting (sort of a gondola ride) on the Cam River. At the same time, there were other parts of experiencing Cambridge that I simply didn’t have the time to enjoy. Among these were the many music and theater performances that take place around the city and are advertised in colorful posters seen all around the center. This being Cambridge, I assumed that the local programs would adhere to the highest performance standards. Being here now, without a time-consuming program to organize, offered the chance to check a few of these out.
On Friday night we made our way to one of the colleges for a performance of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing offered in a lovely outdoor setting at the college. As it turned out, the play was a hot mess with several of the men’s roles confusingly played by women (a twist from Shakespeare’s time of men playing women’s roles), uneven performances ranging from mumbled, unintelligible lines to outright hamminess, and awkward silences a few times when lines were forgotten, with no helpful ad libs from others on stage. In the middle of the play, a cast member broke into Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely?” sung to recorded accompaniment. The show ended with the entire cast dancing and singing Abba’s “Dancing Queen.” Don Pedro accompanied on a small electric piano, Benedikt played a trumpet solo, and a minor character played the saxophone. Was this performance a triumph of enthusiasm over preparation and direction? Was it campy on purpose and we are too un-hip to understand? Were the players simply high? Or was it some combination of all of these? We will never know the answers to these questions.
The following evening we went to a choral concert of coronation anthems in one of the campus performance spaces. What could be better than hearing majestic Handel coronation anthems in Cambridge? The choir, it turned out, was an unauditioned community group, made up mostly of older people in the local community whose enthusiasm outshone artistry. As they sang, I glanced over at John, who was struggling to keep his composure. He was reading the program notes, which summarized mishaps in coronations over the centuries, including a king slipping and falling, a stone falling out of a coronation ring during the ceremony, a crown that was too big and kept falling off the king’s head, and an archbishop’s worthiness for his role being questioned after he accidentally killed one of the king’s gamekeepers with a crossbow while hunting. It was this passage that set him off:
Etiquette demanded that one should never turn his back on Royalty. [A participant in the coronation] had trained his horse to walk backwards. However, when the time came for his entry, his horse would only enter the hall backwards, rump first toward their majesties. The assembled lords and ladies collapsed with hysterical laughter.
Who could blame John for getting tickled?
Neither of our experiences over last weekend offered the polished performances I had anticipated. Instead they offered something else that we’ve had in our time here, which is a glimpse of the real people who live, work, and study in this community. The players and singers we saw over the weekend are people who are engaged in singing and acting in the companionship of other like-minded folks. Our time here has given us a chance to see local people here doing what people do everywhere: walking their kids to school, enjoying a beer in a pub, playing sports in the parks, shopping in a local farmer’s market, and enjoying graduation and end-of-term celebrations. And in those ways, Starkville and Cambridge have plenty in common.
As a final note, we have enjoyed some wonderful music here, including a concert just last evening by the strings group, Ensemble 12, who performed the Mendelssohn Octet for Strings and works by Strauss and Shostakovich in one of the most exciting chamber concerts I’ve heard in a while. We’ve also been able to enjoy the heavenly sounds of the King’s College Choir singing in their home venue, King’s College Chapel. And that is a delight that can’t be enjoyed anywhere else in the world.