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Carl Vine on The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge

Trinity College Cambridge is an extraordinary institution, the alumni of which constitute a potted history of European civilisation. Science features high on the list with names like Isaac Newton, Niels Bohr, Lord Rayleigh and Charles Babbage, and since 1900 no fewer than 32 members of the college have received Nobel Prizes. But it’s hard to overlook other graduates like Francis Bacon, Bertrand Russell, Rajiv Gandhi, Wittgenstein, John Dryden, Lord Byron, Alfred Tennyson, A.A. Milne and Vladimir Nabokov, to name just a few. It is fair to say that places at Trinity are keenly sought by the brightest students in the world.

From this heady mist of history and achievement emerges an extraordinary choir led by one of the great choral directors of our time, Stephen Layton, who chooses choristers on the basis of their passion and intelligence as much as for the qualities of their voice. The result is striking, marked by an overwhelming sense of musical intelligence that can almost be touched, with all of the requisite sensitivity and finesse to complete the picture.

This sensational group tours Australia for Musica Viva in July and August. In the spirit of capturing everything imaginable in the realm of choral music, Stephen has chosen for the tour a program spanning four centuries, from the immaculate marvels of Tallis and Byrd through to the modern Europeans, Rautavaara and Ešenvalds, we are granted an elite journey through the director’s musical universe. One path leads to “Wings of the Wind” composed by the college’s own organ scholar, Owain Park, who is rapidly emerging as a significant force in modern choral music.

The highest path on our expedition leads to the newest music on the program – the world premiere of a new work by Australian composer Joe Twist, “Hymn of Ancient Lands”, commissioned by Mary Pollard and family expressly for this concert tour.

Carl Vine AO
Artistic Director

Touring Australia 17 July – 4 August. Book your tickets here: musicaviva.com.au/trinity

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Brilliance and Beauty in Equal Measure – Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

choir-chapel-bigIt’s been 13 years since the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge last visited Australia and a full City Recital Hall Angel Place greeted the singers’ arrival on stage with thunderous applause. Music Director Stephen Cleobury noted that when he first toured Australia for Musica Viva in 1983 no one else on the stage was alive; equally, some of the boy choristers were not born the last time I saw the choir perform in Sydney in 2001. Yet here they were singing some of the most challenging choral repertoire ever written as they though were part of either of those previous tours!

And challenging repertoire it was, mostly for the Choir but also for the audience as many of the works are not often heard outside the king’s College Chapel. The first half’s mix of pieces by the some of the great composers of Renaissance and Baroque music saw the Choir singing a number of different compositional styles in quick succession. I especially enjoyed their interpretations of English composers Thomas Tallis’ Suscipe quaeso, Domine (1575) and Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes mei (c.1680) by Henry Purcell as well as Italian Claudio Monteverdi’s Adoramus te, Christe (c1620); each of these works saw the four sections of the Choir brilliantly realising the challenges of their individual parts as well as creating a rich and varied ensemble sound. Special mention must be made of tenor and bass soloists in the Purcell, Joel Williams and Henry Hawkesworth.

The second half featured, for me, the evening’s standout performances and was incredibly rewarding listening overall. Two pieces by Charles Stanford for a single soprano line accompanied by piano framed the late Romantic masterpieces by Charles Parry. The Choir’s performance of Parry’s very moving seven-part Lord, let me know mine end from Songs of Farewell (c1916-1918) was virtuosic and brilliantly shaped, highlighting both the high quality of the singers as well as Stephen’s great experience in this repertoire.

The opportunity to hear together the three Australian carols commissioned by the Choir from Peter Sculthorpe, Brett Dean and Carl Vine for their Nine Lessons & Carols Christmas Eve Service is rare and I’m glad Stephen agreed with our suggestion to perform them. Each work is very different to the other yet formed a very satisfying set, as well as being a terrific way to lead into the concert’s closing work, Benjamin Britten’s masterful Hymn to Saint Cecilia (1942). I have always loved this work, as both audience member and chorister  ̶  though it does instil fear in me being the latter due to its significant demands. I thought the Choir’s performance was superb, with every member of the Choir giving 150% including the youngest boy sopranos. The soft singing was especially beautiful and to hear it in Angel Place’s warm acoustic a very special experience.

Britten’s work is in praise of the patron saint of music, and it seemed a fitting close to a concert that celebrated the beauty of the voice and the richness of the choral music tradition. On this hearing, the 2014 iteration of the Choir seems a very special one to me, and the sustained applause at the end of the concert by 1,200 others seemed to indicate that everyone else was of the same opinion.

Tim Matthies
Director of Business Development, Concerts

 

The Biggest Threat to Boy Choirs

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The great British tradition of boy choirs was nearly lost during Cromwell’s Commonwealth, when cathedral musicians were disbanded for political and ideological reasons. Today’s choirs face a different threat; so far they seem to be holding up magnificently, but they are wrestling with a challenge that is little-known outside the choral world.

George Thalben-Ball was in charge of music at London’s Temple Church for nearly 60 years from 1923. (He directed the famous recordings of treble Ernest Lough singing ‘Hear My Prayer’.) Thalben-Ball observed first-hand that as the 20th-century went on, drawing away from the Depression and major wars, male voices broke earlier. He attributed the effect to better health and nutrition.

We know from church records that in earlier centuries it was very common to have 16- or even 17-year-old trebles (such as Joseph Haydn). These days the average is more like 12. There is of course a vast difference in musical ability between a 12-year-old and a late teenager, not least in the hours of practice put in, and that’s behind the almost unbelievably complex solo lines written for trebles by people like Bach and Handel. It’s not that they had superhuman 12-year-olds back then; it’s that the lines were performed by young adults.

Haydn was almost literally thrown on the street when he could no longer sing treble in St Stephen’s, Vienna. Today, happily, boys are most often encouraged to gently sing through the change, singing in their ‘old’ voices while it’s comfortable, and gradually experimenting with the new. Sometimes their voices slide downwards naturally over a few months; for some there are two distinct voices, with perhaps a difficult or ‘missing’ octave between them. In a choir with a heavy schedule, a boy may need to step back from performing while he gets used to his new voice.

At Stephen Cleobury’s suggestion, Musica Viva is bringing an ‘extra’ King’s treble on this lengthy national tour…just in case…

Katherine Kemp
Director of Artistic Planning, Concerts

The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge tour Australia for Musica Viva 21 July – 2 August. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit;musicaviva.com.au/kings

 

 

 

An Interview with Stephen Cleobury

In this video, Stephen Cleobury, who has been the Director of Music for the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge since 1982, discusses the choir’s upcoming Australian tour, the repertoire they will be performing, and the difference between performing in churches and concert halls.

The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge tour Australia for Musica Viva 21 July – 2 August. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit; musicaviva.com.au/kings

Choir of King’s College, Cambridge Spotify Playlist

MVA ICS 2014 Kings College

To celebrate the Australian tour of the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, we have programmed this Spotify playlist, which features audio commentary from Musica Viva’s Artistic Coordinator, Hamish Lane.

Acknowledged as the peak of choral excellence in the great British tradition, the boys and men of the Choir, led by conductor Stephen Cleobury, share their uniquely beautiful vocal timbre in an unmissable selection of favourite classics and new repertoire.

 

The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge tour Australia from 21 July – 2 August. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit; www.musicaviva.com.au/kings