Choir of King’s College, Cambridge tour Australia

Combining the old with the new, the traditional with the contemporary in music is no mean feat. But for Stephen Cleobury, Director of Music of the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, this is an essential element of remaining at the forefront of choral singing in an ever-changing world.

king's_college_photo_credit_Debbie_ScanlanWhilst he and the choristers of this world-famous choir sing daily in the beautiful chapel of King’s College at Cambridge (a splendid example of late Gothic architecture which goes back to the 15th century), surrounded by some of the finest medieval stained glass in the world, Cleobury is determined that the choir will not remain couched in the past.

Although the choir was formed under the patronage of King Henry VI, the purpose being to sing the daily services in the chapel, the choir today has a world-wide reputation as being at the forefront of choral performance, with a recording output in the dozens, numerous overseas tours, as well as performances in London and elsewhere in the UK.

As director, Cleobury has seen enormous change. Adhering for the most part to its traditional tenents, Cleobury, himself is responsible for much of this shift, most notably to the singing of new repertoire by living composers.

“When I came to King’s in 1982, one of the very big tasks that lay before me was the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, which is probably the occasion in the year when we’re heard by a large number of people across the world. This, of course is a very traditional event, but in my opinion it is important to nourish it with new music, so that it doesn’t become a museum piece,” said Cleobury.

Kings-College-Choir-001Indeed, the choir’s worldwide reputation hinged to a large extent on the annual broadcast of this very Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols (heard by tens of millions of people).

“That’s the same for our regular day-to-day repertoire for our chapel service. But I thought that our Christmas eve service around the world was a good shop-window, to present newly commissioned works.”

The first composer to be commissioned was Lennox Berkeley, and amongst those who have followed him are, Thomas Adés, Judith Bingham, James Macmillan and John Rutter, to name but a few.

“I have commissioned new music every year since 1983, mostly, for understandable reasons, composers in the UK, but I’ve also looked abroad. So, we’ve added to contributions from America, Finland, Estonia, and this year from Switzerland, but importantly we’ve had as many as three Australian composers which we are performing on the forthcoming tour.”

Cleobury acknowledges that each of these composers, Peter Sculthorpe, Carl Vine and Brett Dean are very well known in Europe and in the UK.

“I see it (these three Australian composers) as part of that tradition, and what they have written for us here, fits in very well with the ethos of music that a choir like King’s is used to singing. That’s not to say that they are not highly original works, and each one is highly distinctive.”

Australian composer Carl Vine wrote the carol for the 2012 service, Ring Out, Wild Bells, based on a setting of Tennyson’s poem. For Vine, the poem “inventively encapsulates the core Christian principles of community, generosity and kindness”.

The commission for the Festival in 2007 went to Brett Dean and his composition, Now Comes the Dawn uses a poem by Richard Watson Gilder.

Peter Sculthorpe’s The Birthday of thy King was the first Australian carol to be commissioned and included in the famous Festival. Dating back to the late 1980s, the carol commission came about simply as Cleobury was very fond of another Sculthorpe carol, Morning Song for the Christ Child, and he felt he would really love another piece by the iconic Australian composer.

Cleobury is proud of the fact he has enacted change and endured the storm of controversy over the introduction of new (or modern) pieces to the choir’s repertoire.

cleobury.Maincontent.0001.Image.gif“When I started doing this annual commission, I used to get quite critical letters from people who said, ‘What are you doing ruining this great tradition with horrible modern music?’”

“But in fact, that has died down very much now. I don’t get that sort of letter anymore. I think people have got used to the idea that there is going to be a new commission, and it’s got to the point now where people say to me ‘Who is writing the carol for this year?’”

Cleobury admits that it has been quite a nice journey and although he received some pressure in the early days from publishers, things have changed even there.

Nowadays, as the tradition of the annual commission has become better known, publishers will write in with suggestions, but Cleobury confesses that he hasn’t got a list of the 25 most famous contemporary composers, and that he puts them in some order and works through the list.

“I’ve done this (chosen who’s to be commissioned) in a more personal and interesting way, on the basis of some contact with a particular composer I’ve had. Years ago, I met Judith Weir at a Christmas party; I met Harrison Birtwhistle at the Royal Albert Hall while we were waiting for a Promenade concert to start. There’s been all kinds of different ways in which I’ve come across different composers.”

“In the case of Carl Vine, I met him through the Musica Viva connection. I haven’t met Peter Sculthorpe, but before I arrived at King’s, I became very fond of a particular carol and simply wanted another one from him. Brett Dean’s daughter actually studied in Cambridge, so that was part of the connection there.”

From singing at the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge to such renowned concert venues as the Royal Albert Hall in London, and the Sydney Opera House, the choir must manage carefully the variances of hall, and even performing in front of a concert audience.

The choir’s sixteen boy choristers, aged between nine and thirteen years, fourteen male undergraduates, and two organ scholars, has become quite adept at touring.

Noting that there are real differences between singing in the Chapel for a service, where the purpose is for the music to elevate the liturgy, and the concert platform, where the choir sings directly to an audience, Cleobury claims he doesn’t make massive changes when singing in a new venue, but rather reacts sensitively to the acoustical spaces he encounters.

“I like to think we don’t have to change very much, because it is perfectly true that the Chapel acoustic at King’s is a very distinctive one, with its 4-5 second reverberation, but I work very hard on a daily basis to make sure that that doesn’t make us lazy.”

“It is a very stern discipline in one sense, because if you send out into the building a sound that is not well blended or tuned, then you have to hear that sound for the next 4 seconds or so. Precisely because there is this resonance, it can be tempting to let the building do too much for you, and not give your singing the energy and specifically the sostenuto that it needs.”

On contemplating his two concerts in Sydney (one in the Opera House Concert Hall, the other at City Recital Hall, Angel Place), he gives some good advice for any choir director

“There are two things I keep telling the choir when I get into a concert venue: if it is a really big venue, such as the Opera House, you mustn’t think that you have to sing 2 or 3 times more loudly to fill the space. You lose all sorts of things, like blend and quality. We do quite a number of concerts in the Royal Albert Hall in London, and the truth is that soft singing carries rather well in that acoustic. The second point is to make sure you are singing a sostenuto line as there is no King’s College acoustic to carry if you are not.

There are two programmes on offer in Sydney. A mixture of early English and Italian pieces sit alongside nineteenth and twentieth century English works, and in one concert, Fauré’s timeless and touching Requiem, accompanied by the College’s Organ Scholar.

Along with the three Australian works, programme 1 includes Hear my words, ye people (Parry), Sing Joyfully 
(Byrd), Dum complerentur 
(Palestrina), Hymn to St Cecilia, Op 27
 (Britten) and Requiem in D minor, Op 48 (Fauré).

The second programme presents an intimate number of works from early music through to the modern Australian works: Sing Joyfully (Byrd), Dum complerentur (Palestrina), Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes mei, Z135, and I was glad when they said unto me, Z19
(Purcell), Cantate Domino canticum novum, SV292 and Claudio Adoramus te, Christe, SV293 (Monteverdi), A Song of Wisdom, and A Song of Peace from Six Hymns, Op 113
(Stanford), and Hymn to St Cecilia, Op 27 (Britten).

On this Australian tour, the choir and Dr Cleobury are not only presenting a feast of the finest choral music, but also nurturing a tradition which has been inherited from the fifteenth century, all the while straddling the twentieth century with the inclusion of music of the present day.

(This article first appeared in Fine Music magazine, July 2014 issue, and can be found online at )

Farewell Tour – Tokyo String Quartet

Biding fond farewells are always filled with heart-reaching moments. This will be no further from the truth when the acclaimed Tokyo String Quartet makes its final tour of Australia this month.

Established since 1969, the Quartet has attracted accolades across the world for its “exemplary chamber music” (The New York Times). Making the decision to say farewell to its audiences and the success that the Quartet has enjoyed was not an easy one.

20120423115404_TokyoBut for cellist Clive Greensmith, there is life beyond the Tokyo String Quartet.

Speaking from Warsaw on this final world tour, Greensmith reminisced about the 14 years he has worked with the Quartet, and what is on the horizon after the tour for all four members.

“Speaking on behalf of the whole group, none of us will cease to be involved in our first love, which is chamber music. We’ll be able to participate as musicians in varied ways.”

For the Quartet’s founding member, violist Kazuhide Isomura, life will be split between teaching chamber music and viola as a visiting professor at his alma mater, the Toho School of Music in Tokyo, as well as taking up a new position at the Manhattan School of Music in New York, where Greensmith also teaches.

Second violinist, Kikuei Ikeda (who joined the group three years after its formation) will continue (along with Isomura) some kind of relationship with the Yale School of Music, where the Quartet has been in Residence since 1976. Ikeda will also teach at a private university in Tokyo in a similar capacity as a visiting professor.

Greensmith is both melancholic about the passing of something that was truly great, but optimistic also, looking forward to a new era for himself and the other Quartet members.

“First violinist, Martin (Beaver) and I will be moving to Los Angeles full-time to take up new positions at a wonderful emerging school called The Colburn School, which is situated in the downtown area, right opposite the Disney Hall. It is a conservatory that is only nine years old, and a school that has done remarkably well in a few years.

“He and I will be co-directing the string chamber music programme and we will also have our own students. So we’ll begin that move to LA full-time in the summer, after the Quartet disbands.

“And we’ll also have our own piano trio. So there will be a group that will emerge from the TSQ, and we’re still thinking about who will be the pianist with whom we would like to play.

So unlike many who might be thinking of retirement, for Greensmith there is still much to do and to explore. Understandably, seeing the world is not high on his list.

“Touring has been a big slice of my life. I have been very fortunate to have played all over the world. It has been a real privilege, and way more than I ever expected, when I was thinking about my future in my 20s.

Not living in a hotel suite and seeing a different city every couple of days will be a welcome change. “People underestimate how difficult it is to travel. Even on this trip from New York to Warsaw, my luggage did not arrive, so you’re always a little anxious about the things that are important, even just having the music with you on arrival for a concert.

There is no possibility that his cello would go missing, however, as it occupies a seat on every plane next to him when he travels.

Greensmith’s cello belongs to what is known famously as the Paganini Strads, two violins, a viola and cello, which range in age from 269 to 325 years of age, and owned by virtuoso, Niccolo Paganini until his death in 1840.

The “Strads” have been through a series of collectors, but since 1995 have been owned by the Nippon Music Foundation, which loans them to the Quartet with the only caveat being that they are always played together.

That means that when the Quartet finally disbands, the instruments, which have been inseparable to the Quartet members, will be returned to the Foundation.

“It is going to be a wrench saying our farewells to these wondrous instruments, and there’s no getting around that fact. It is a little more bearable knowing that we all have our own personal instruments.

“The Strad cello I have been using, and to which I have grown very familiar and close, that is 14 years of constant use, is really a part of me. It has taught me what I like in cellos, what I want to find in terms of sound.

“I’m now at the point where I’m confident that I’ll be able to re-sculpt that sound on another cello. I was very lucky to find a modern Italian instrument from the 1920’s, which I really love. It’s the same style of instrument – the famous B Form Strad Cello – I’m so glad I have that, so that when I give the Strad back, I will feel relatively comfortable. I have been using the new one to break myself in, and it won’t be such of a wrench when I have to give the Strad back.

No doubt the Paganini Strads will be closely watched by a world audience to see to what group they are loaned by the Foundation. Whilst consoling himself about the fate of giving up these beautiful instruments, Greensmith also acknowledges that they must be used.

“We all recognise that they (the Strads) should be given to another group. These are instruments that should be played, and honestly, nothing would make me happier than to know a deserving group can enjoy them and have an intimate relationship with them as we have done. They should be played, not kept in a bank vault, so I am happy to see them go to a group that will exploit them and enjoy them.

It may even be possible that on a future tour for Musica Viva, the Paganini Strads may once again be heard by a Quartet, yet unknown.

Greensmith, along with his Quartet colleagues and friends are greatly looking forward to their visit this month to Australia. Their previous visits have been met with unanimous praise from critics and audiences alike.

“We love playing in Australia”, said Greensmith.

“Of course, we love playing in Sydney. Angel Place is absolutely fantastic”. And then not to appear too focused on one city, Greensmith lists off all the venues in which he has performed with insightful anecdotes about the cities, its venues and audiences.

“Australians have tremendous passion and enthusiasm for chamber music.  They are warm, attentive and knowledgeable.

“There is more variation in Australia though, than when we visit, say to Japan, where cell phones and coughing never happens…. But then, in Madrid for example, the audiences are almost like attending a soccer match.”

Having travelled the world and played in some of the greatest concert halls on offer, it is comforting to find such praise and love for Australian audiences. Greensmith believes that the audiences owe something to Musica Viva, the company that contracts and tours such artists as the Tokyo String Quartet.

“Because the roots of Musica Viva are so deeply connected to Europe and the emigration from Europe, my take is that the audiences, which we find and have come to love in Australia, are every bit as erudite, enthusiastic and passionate about chamber music as the finest audiences in North America and Europe”, states Greensmith.

He acknowledges that there is a fervent, but healthy nationalism evident amonst Australian audiences, and notes that on more than one tour they have played music by Carl Vine and Peter Sculthorpe.

The Quartet No 16, by Sculthorpe, was commissioned by Musica Viva, for the Quartet’s 2004 Australian tour, and this emotive work will be on the current tour’s programmes.

“It was an extraordinarily topical piece, being inspired by letters from asylum seekers; they were very personal.”

Greensmith quickly points out that the Quartet members were not asked to comment on the politics of the piece, but were simply to take it upon face value about its musical worth.

“We loved it and found it very powerful, and it spoke to us. We were very happy to work with Peter (Sculthorpe) on the piece, and must say, it was extremely well written for the group.

“We saw it as our role to be powerful advocates for the piece, but also acknowledge that he (Sculthorpe) has written over 16 string quartets, and his is a very important body of work for the 20th and 21st century repertoire for string quartets.

For some, there might be questions as to whether works for string quartets will continue in this modern age. Greensmith has no doubt that they will, albeit prove a very difficult path for any composer.

“Writing for String Quartet is an extremely exacting medium; it is very hard for composers to write for string Quartets as there is no hiding behind orchestral colour.

“As well, there’s an almost over bearing presence of Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Bartok and Shostakovich, and composers must be constantly measuring themselves against that incredible body of repertoire.

“It is an exacting task. For string players, there’s very little chance to hide – make “filler” music that’s going to convince people. Composers must almost feel naked as there’s not much trickery that you can use, if you have a lack of ideas. It’s an awfully big responsibility.

For many performing artists, leaving a legacy is important. The Tokyo String Quartet has left an enormous legacy of memorable concerts, and a prodigious recording output. But perhaps, it is best for Greensmith himself to sum up how the group might like to be remembered.

“I would suggest that the group be known for its homogeneity of sound; like a fine choir. It is the internal balance of the Quartet at which we’ve worked very hard, to make sure that the tonal picture of the group is something that we feel right about. That means a great homogeneity of sound and clarity of voicing, so you can hear the main line wherever it is; the balance is good, so that you can distinguish the individual voices together, as well as a sense of harmonious working together.

“The balance between the individual and the corporate identity of the group is always important. We never “shout” when we play. We like to play with a tremendous range of sound; we like to explore the softer and more intimate range of sounds in the dynamic spectrum. We never grandstand, that is, superimpose our egos on the music. I think the Paganini instruments have allowed us to realise that such a philosophy in a successful way. Each instrument has a very distinct timbre of sound, and there’s a certain warmth and clarity and precision that the instruments have. It’s not a question of loud or soft, but question of character.

Just as each of the Quartet will miss his equally famous instrument, so collectively they will miss their audiences who have adored their playing for over four decades.


(This article first appeared in the May 2013 issue of Fine Music magazine.)