A Choirmaster’s Circle of Success

The last time Choir of King’s College, Cambridge were in Adelaide was more than a decade ago, in 2001, when they sang midwinter carols in the Town Hall.

The sight of 16 red-frocked boy choristers and 14 choral scholars filing onto stage and singing with their renowned precision is one of the rarer delights we ever get to experience. The last time Choir of King’s College, Cambridge were in Adelaide was more than a decade ago, in 2001, when they sang midwinter carols in the Town Hall.

They come again this August to grace the Festival Theatre – one hopes its acoustics will treat the young singers kindly. It will be a concert that in many ways represents the journey that this most famous of English choirs has taken under its director of 32 years, Stephen Cleobury. Choir of King’s College now performs and records an extraordinary diversity of music for what has been in its five centuries a traditional chapel choir. No doubt many listeners will continue to associate King’s with their immaculate evensong performances, but these days one is just as likely to hear the choir tackling Mahler, Britten, Arvo Pärt or John Rutter. Additionally, it commissions composers from all around the world to write new works for its internationally televised annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. Australian composers Peter Sculthorpe, Brett Dean and Carl Vine have each been asked to write carols for this festival in past years, and we’ll get to hear all three in this concert, along with music of Palestrina, Byrd, Parry, Britten and Fauré. It’s quite a spread of repertoire for a choir made upof schoolboys and university undergraduates, but as a program this is now typical of what King’s takes on its overseas tours. The biggest challenge with this expanded repertoire, says Cleobury, is the choir’s quick turnover of membership. Boy choristers last on average five years, the choral scholars three-to-four years. “I think it’s a very nice thing to do, to sing music by composers whose countries we visit. The pieces by Sculthorpe, Dean and Vine, are all ones we’ve sung before, but the quite rapid turnover of the choir means that effectively these are new pieces each time we do them. “I’ve seen it as my duty to bring as wide a repertoire to the singers as possible. In around 1995, I was appointed chief conductor of the BBC Singers, which had 24 fulltime singers, and it was a marvellous thing to do. It opened my ears to other sounds in vocal performance and I’ve become aware of a wider repertoire. This choir has young people in it, all up to 22 years old, which give it a freshness and lightness of sound. And they’ve not yet developed vibrato. The advantage is that one can work on blending the sound. When singers are 10 to 15 years older one can work with their greater vocal maturity, but less with blend.” Cleobury concedes, nevertheless, that audiences probably mostly come to hear what Choir of King’s College is best renowned for – singing polyphonic masterpieces from the Renaissance and Baroque. But here too things are different now, he explains. “Other things have changed due to the wheels of fashion. We’ve become much more aware of historical performance practice. So far as what one understands by authenticity, we aim at that, with the result that we try to be as close as possible to the intentions of the composer for each piece.” When his singers take on Palestrina or Byrd, he says character of line and enunciation of text are paramount. “Because there’s quite complex contrapuntal interplay in their music, the aim is to make it as clear as possible.” When one part carries more importance for example, he says, it needs lifting above the other parts. “This is one of the tasks of conducting, to make the intentions of the composer as clear as possible and bring out the architecture of the piece.” Cleobury adds that selecting singers has become noticeably harder in recent years. “Today it is different compared to 40 years ago when I started as a professional director of music. Then there was singing in local churches and schools. It’s not that there are fewer good singers now, but it means that a much bigger part of the audition process has to look at musical potential over training. This may also be the case in Australia, I think. The problem is that young singers need a ladder to climb up. “I’d describe it as a circle of success. I’ve seen it happen with overseas choirs I’ve worked with. If aspirations are set high, then comes the gratitude and excitement if those aspirations are met. Then a choir can keep excelling.” Choir of King’s College, Cambridge Adelaide Festival Theatre Saturday, August 2 musicaviva.com.au

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