You have to wonder, at the end of March Madness, if Stephen Cleobury feels a special affinity with basketball coaches. For thirty-seven years, he’s run morning practices with his team of thirty-two boys and young men. But these are athletes of the voice: Cleobury is the director of the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, arguably the world’s premier choir of men and boys.

Cleobury went out on top of his game in his last performance in New York last Monday at Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue. Cleobury will retire in September and be replaced by Saint Thomas’s own music director, Daniel Hyde, also a former organ scholar with the King’s College Choir. There was a sense of healthy competition, then, as the King’s College Choir filed out past the towering stone altarpiece at Saint Thomas, given that members of Hyde’s renowned Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys usually fill the choir stalls.

In any rivalry, real or imagined, King’s College scores points for its history. When King Henry VI founded the college in 1441, he started a choir to sing the daily services in its Chapel. That tradition has continued almost continuously for more than five hundred years: the choir sings six days a week during the school term, even as they have earned worldwide fame over the past century for their  Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols and other recordings, along with frequent international tours.

Like a seasoned coach, Cleobury stuck to a traditional game plan for his farewell tour. The program consisted of classic composers of mostly sacred music in English and Latin, spanning music history from Monteverdi (1567–1643) to Lennox Berkeley (1903–89).
 

Stephen Cleobury. Photo: Steven Pisano.

The strategy worked beautifully. The sixteen choristers (boy trebles and altos), fourteen choral scholars (undergraduate King’s College students), and two organ scholars performed with impressive discipline and an almost instinctual feel for the music earned through years of practice and first-rate teaching. Cleobury is an understated conductor: a breath and a flick of the wrist is all that is needed for his choir to execute a sudden crescendo or finish a phrase in sync.

At intermission, the audience replayed the performance like a halftime highlight reel.

In Thomas Tallis’s Videte miraculum (composed in the mid-sixteenth century)and other Baroque and Renaissance music, the men and boys passed melodic lines with an easy athleticism. The tenors and basses anticipated the boys’ dynamics and timing and picked up the melody in a way that brought individual polyphonic lines into a whole.

And they are supremely, almost haughtily, comfortable in Latin. As is not always the case in that consonant-heavy language, every word was audible, and their diction was consistently light on its feet, with full vowels and sharp enunciation. Antonio Lotti’s Cruxifixus á 8, for example, is a crucible of consonants; the reward for entering together on that hard “CR” in “Cruxifixus” is a triple threat of difficult clusters and fricatives. And it was flawless, like watching a perfect fast break ending with a slam dunk. At intermission, the audience replayed it like a halftime highlight reel.

The similar timbres of the voices in an all-male choir make for delightful listening: what you sacrifice in the variety of female sopranos and altos, you receive back in purity of sound. The subtle variations between vocal parts give you the impression of hearing a single voice at various ages simultaneously. After all, today’s trebles are tomorrow’s tenors.

The singers had learned teamwork, too. The trebles tended to enter too airily and let phrases die out too soon (forgive them; the youngest are eight years old). But Cleobury’s training ensured that when they petered out, their sound merely thinned instead of dissolving into a battle of word endings attacked too soon.

The two organ scholars are probably the true team players of the group, since they spent most of the program playing spare accompaniment or sitting aside for a cappella pieces. But their reward was a performance each on the newly restored Miller-Scott Organ: Bach’s Prelude in C minor,BWV 546 and, later, Louis Vierne’s Scherzo from Symphony No. 2., Op. 2. There were blurry moments, but even on an unfamiliar instrument, the church hummed. Hyde must look forward to working with King’s College organists like his younger self.

As impressive as the choir was on the older, polyphonic works, the nineteenth- and twentieth-century music on the second half of the program suited the choir’s strengths particularly well. The program included Britten’s Praised be the God of love (Antiphon) with its text from George Herbert’s “The Temple”; Like as the hart by Herbert Howells; the pastoral, yet dynamic The Lord is my Shepherd by Lennox Berkeley; and an encore of Ola Gjeilo’s setting of Ubi caritas. The chromatic passages in these works added an element of discord that made the climactic, victorious returns to harmony all the more striking.

In Edward W. Naylor’s Vox dicentis, clama, the dynamics were sweeping and sudden, well suited to the dramatic text from Isaiah: “A voice said, cry; and I said, What shall I cry? . . . . The grass withereth, the flower fadeth,/ But the word of the Lord endureth forever. . . . Behold, the Lord God Will come with strong hand/ and his arm shall rule for him,” reads the translated text from Isaiah 40. The later selections channeled the youthful energy that makes this choir more than precocious professional musicians in miniature: the boys, especially, relished the conflict that this difficult and often discordant music provides.

The later selections channeled the youthful energy that makes this choir more than precocious professional musicians in miniature: they relished the conflict that this difficult and often discordant music provides.

But the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge understood how this dialogue leads toward a greater harmony, exemplified in Britten’s Praised Be the God of Love (Antiphon). This perfectly programmed setting of a chorus section from Herbert’s “The Temple” employs three choirs: a chorus, men, and angels (performed here by treble soloists). The music alternates between the men’s and boys’ sections, then becomes a duet of sorts between soloists and the choir, and finally comes together in the closing couplet: “Praised be the God alone/ Who hath made of two folds one.”

Two directors, two choirs, two instruments, two languages: all joined into a glorious unison, bright and clear as a bell calling students to the daily morning chapel service at the college. This impeccable technique and musical collaboration are a winning legacy for Hyde to carry on next year in his opening season as the director of the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

In the meantime, listen to recent recordings of performances under Cleobury from their in-house recording label, including their centenary Nine Lessons and Carols  from Christmas 2018, Choral Favourites from Cambridge, and the forthcoming Easter from King’s 2019And if you’d like to check out the competition, the Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys will perform Bach’s St. John Passion at their home church on April 11.
 

Stephen Cleobury and the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Photo: Steven Pisano.

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