Saturday, November 14, 2009

UK3: Beauty all around

The alarm goes off but I drift off for another 15 minutes. By the time I pull on clothes and draw on my eyebrows, it’s 7.30. I dash over to the house to give the students a final push out the door. That's what I think, anyhow.

All is quiet. The guys are still in bed, so they will miss the debate breakfast at the Union. Apparently they slept through the only alarm they set. I knock on their doors, “Up and at ‘em.’ Sorry! You have 15 minutes to dress and get out the door.”

I toss toast into the toaster, press it down for two cycles (“otherwise it will burn now, won’t it, and that will set off the fire alarm” –landlady, first day), “butter and jam” it, and they grab the food as they head out the door. They have several different timetables in their heads, one from an email sent by Oxford last week – and none from the printed schedule. I have the print-out, which shows: 8.40 Team registration; 8.50 Round Four.

Between brushing their teeth, running from bedroom to bathroom (“No, you can't shower this morning, guys! No time!”), brushing their hair into submission, they're tossing on dress trousers and suit jackets. They tell me there’s no rhyme or reason in the judging, from their point of view. “The Limerick team was clearly the best in our round, and they got fourth place. It was a shock. And makes no sense to us.”

I explain that judges are looking for style, structure, and substance (content).

“Well, you don’t understand. They didn’t seem to be looking for that in our sessions.”

Ok, whatever. Push Push Push – out they go. Inside, I’m smiling at how well they can fly when they have to. I’m proud of them as they hit the sidewalk at 8.15. “Go for it! Do your best.”

“Can we take a taxi?” they ask as they start to walk, file boxes and knapsacks in hand.

“Nope. If you walk quickly or run (as they did the first day, lagging behind schedule), you can easily make it.” They can take a taxi on their dime. It costs L3.50 each ($6). My gut says they hail a taxi the moment they are out of sight, but they badly need the walk to freshen up and wake for their initial rounds.

I clear away dishes, tidy the kitchen, and take a few minutes to catch up with work emails before heading for town to take them lunch money and cheer them on. I signed out yesterday and haven’t signed up to judge at 8.50 in case they needed hands-on care this morning. Whew. I take a walk through a new neighborhood. The old stones, the painted houses, and the cobbled streets fill my vision.

When I find them in the Chambers at the end of the round, our debaters are a bit discouraged and confused by the judging. They have not done well in the early round and can’t figure out what the judges are looking for. “Style, structure, and substance.” But they don’t know what that means, even when I give them examples. So I pat them on the shoulder, tell them to do their best, and wish them well. I plan to go to see them, but

Just for fun, I go to the judges’ pre-session and… there’s my name on a round! I am teamed with only two others, so apparently the organizers didn’t log me out yesterday. The motion is something like, “The house would like to remove the system of patents for inventions and replace patents with government incentives.” The first debate team (government) decides the setting will be in the USA, but a few of the speakers know almost nothing about the USA interactions of government and people. They assume the American government exists to take care of social services like their own more socialistic European models. What I know about the world and politics comes from reading news online a few times a day: BBC, Australian Guardian, Singapore news, CNN, and the Canadian version of Yahoo news. (Except for CNN, I’m getting USA news second hand.) Even I am not impressed with some of the arguments. After the debaters leave, the judges discuss team rankings and come to a consensus on speaker points. And I sign out again.

It's 2pm, time for lunch. Our students have headed off earlier with the other students, so I walk to the Covered Market a few blocks away, a daily indoor farmer’s market. Hogs heads and feathered pheasants hang at the butcher's. A stunning variety of fish are arranged fresh each day. Vegetable specialists, bakers, tea and coffee merchants, a milliner (hatmaker), a cobbler, a metalworker, and accessory and clothing shops are a few of the shops trading inside the big hall. The market’s Piemaker is famous, so I head in for mash (potatoes) and gravy placed under a venison, quail, and pheasant pie. And I order a vegan wildshroom and asparagus pie to go, for supper. The crust is heavy and solid, the filling hearty and tasty.

A family sits down beside me. Dad, Mom, and sis have come to visit a young man at the university. Mom encourages him to iron his clothes so he doesn’t look so rumpled. They ask if I have kids that age when I can’t hide my grin. I ask if he’s the first uni student in the family. Yes. (Ah, I remember encouraging the first one to do the things I used to do for him… with just as little success.) I promise the mother that the other children will not need as much coaxing--she won't care or notice as much as with the first child.

The students are wrapped up with the semi-finals and finals all evening. Magdalene (pronounced ‘maudlin’) College Chapel (built 1474-80) is hosting a Saturday concert at 5.30pm that sounds interesting. Phantasm is a group of 4 viols good enough to rate a Wikipedia entry. It's their first time playing at Magdalene. Their instruments look approximately like two violins, a ‘baby’ cello and a bass (regular size) cello. All are held between the knees. The bow is gripped from underneath, 6-8” from the frog, hand palm up. The group has won multiple awards and is renowned.

I decide to go, and get there just after 5pm. Soon the Brits have queued behind me in the drafty passageway outside the chapel, waiting for the choir rehearsal to end. We are seated in the first row of hard wood benches behind carved wooden grillwork, with candles lighting our faces. First in, I am beside the music group, which settles near the altar and begins to play.

Perfect music drifts up into the six stone ceiling vaults. One vault is over the foyer, where an overflow crowd enjoys the concert. We’re sitting in four rows facing the center from both sides of the chapel. Two golden candlesticks about 27” high with 8” beeswax candles flicker in front of the altar painting of Christ Carrying the Cross by the 17th-century Spanish artist Valdes Leal. The picture is surrounded with stonework, topped with 21 statues of saints, and finished off towards the eaves with more statues standing above intricate carvings of angels holding college shields. Stone grillwork arches trace around the wood doors, which have similar carvings. The green and grey stone floors, squares offset in diamond checkerboards, are worn from centuries of feet. A woven carpet runs the center of the hall. Spectacular colored glass windows contrast with sepia-toned windows of the foyer.

Oh, the music is exquisite! Slight bow pressure, small adjustments… a composer’s dream of unity and attention. When their 25 minute concert is done, they move from the altar to the middle of the chapel for 6pm Evensong. A college student robed in choir black removes their chairs and stands from the altar as they tune up again.

The organ loft faces the altar from the back. As bells toll 6pm, the organist begins to play and the choir files in. There are twelve boys and twelve adult male singers, half on each side, first facing the altar when they enter, then turning to the center. The priest stands on the altar side, the choir conductor on the foyer side in the middle of the chapel.

When the chimes stop, we stand. The organ and quartet accompany the choir. Chants and the Lord’s Prayer are sung on “B”, a peaceful pitch held steady. We tilt forward to slip onto red padded kneeling boxes during prayers, elbows in the reading rail in front of us.

Before the final anthem, the quartet retunes. The organ, the quartet, a trio of singers, and the choir perform Henry Purcell’s Rejoice in the Lord Always. (It's a celebration of Purcell today.) The purity of clean voices, the hum of the viols, and undergirding organ... talented and trained perfectionists exploring the music together. The choir swells in with the responses to the trio, exacting volume and breath control and perfect pitch shapes entries and ends of phrases. Oh my! I’m converted to chapel music, if not to the Anglo Catholic faith! Young choristers in training stand mute among their older peers through the most complicated parts of the service.

The congregation sings a hymn together that was written in the eighth century. The priest bows to the altar, the quartet begins a Purcell postlude, and the priest turns to walk out, followed by the choir. We stand until they are gone, then sit until the music dies away and silence rolls down over the echoes from the roof to envelop us.

I walk all the way home to prepare the schedules for tomorrow: the guys are getting in very late, but need to know what to expect in the morning. I set out the bus tickets and a reminder to pack bus tickets, passports, and their flight e-tickets. Just in case, I give them an extra copy of the flight plans.

We'll start with breakfast at 8am. Plans are to attend a nearby service at 9am. Two fellows head home via Heathrow at noon. The other two will tour Blenheim Palace (birthplace of Winston Churchill) in the afternoon, where I have booked tea in the India Room. So far the students have seen the insides of the colleges where they have debated, the famous dining hall at Christchurch College, and walked to and from the hotel through town. The two students will see some of the glory of England tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I have to pack up my own suitcase and shower. I'll be moving into the empty room in the house after the first set of students leaves, but have to vacate my current room before I cook breakfast. It's 1am before I turn out the lights.

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