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Brian Taylor is a musician and writer. He resides in New York City.

REVIEW: The Sterling Voices of King's College Choir

REVIEW: The Sterling Voices of King's College Choir

APRIL 1, 2019

BY BRIAN TAYLOR

The Choir of King's College, Cambridge's recent concert at Saint Thomas Church felt like a celebration -- a grateful, momentous turning of the road. It felt like Spring. This was the last occasion on which they would appear under the direction of Stephen Cleobury in the U.S. before he retires. Fittingly, Daniel Hyde, current music director of St. Thomas's own esteemed music program will return to his alma mater to take over Mr. Cleobury's duties as Director of Music. 

Mr. Cleobury has led the King's College Choir since 1982, and he conducts the choir with a gentle, paternal gravitas. Famous for the longest standing annual broadcast in history, BBC's Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, the choir is a wondrous musical ensemble comprised of 16 boy choristers, ages ranging 9 to 13, and 14 male undergraduates, majoring in a variety of subjects in school. There are two organ scholars, as well. It is a connection to a centuries-old tradition, music that exists because of, and very much for, a church like St. Thomas.

Photo by Steven Pisano.

Photo by Steven Pisano.

The church, a towering room with Gothic arches and extensive sculptural details, is warm and inviting. The evening’s program was a Sunday school lesson in music history, a (roughly) chronological tour through time: sacred music from 1500's England, high-Baroque, purple Romanticism, angsty mid-twentieth century works, and finally, fresh work by a living composer. All designed expressly for this acoustic environment, music that uses the air in the room as its medium. The great nave’s acoustics reverberate into eternity, especially when such sterling voices, and organists, are putting that air into motion. 

The young treble and alto choristers have pure, focused tone. The tenors and basses have an instrumental consistency, forming a bedrock of tonality. Their collective timbre, alchemically blended, sounds so much like an organ it’s indiscernible when the soft continuo organ plays along. Mr. Cleobury conducts with the barest of gestures, like a school headmaster studying his ledger, and the choir’s perfectly tuned chords cause the church’s massive organ pipes to vibrate sympathetically. 

The evening's program, in surveying rarities from a span of 400 years of largely English sacred music, served to illustrate the development of harmony and musical form. From the hypnotic tapestry of Thomas Tallis's Videte miraculum, a liturgical response, to the cadential, melody and accompaniment of Henry Purcell's Jehovah, quad multi sunt hostes mei, a Psalm setting, the choir delivers the music simply, an innocent outpouring of an abstract, three-dimensional aural structure. 

The words, even when in English, are not theatrically enunciated, and sometimes they can be difficult to make out, especially in St. Thomas's reflective acoustic. The choir's vowels are as pure as the driven snow, each "R" is delicately rolled, and plosive consonants sparingly, precisely articulated. And nothing else seems to matter when a glorious treble solo soars up into a high descant. 

The two King's College organ scholars excelled at the manuals of St. Thomas's newly installed chancel organ. One of the most significant new instruments in the country, the Miller-Scott Organ built by Iowa's Dobson Organ Company, using pipes from the original 1913 Skinner, is in its inaugural season, and sounds magnificent. J.S. Bach's Prelude in C Minor, BWV 546, is a workout for the instrument (and player); Bach explores every register, every nook and cranny of the organ. This is music created for this space, not earbuds. Hearing the various stops and reeds and colors activated in glorious polyphony, the texture oozing and bouncing among the angles and arcs in the Gothic revival architecture -- this is living music.

Photo by Steven Pisano.

Photo by Steven Pisano.

The program's second half featured the comparatively modern Scherzo from fin de siècle French composer Louis Vierne’s Second Organ Symphony. It’s a showpiece for the various pigments available to the organist: from light and gauzy, to brassy and orchestral. Benjamin Britten's Antiphon from 1956 was a highlight, showcasing the organist in dialogue with the choir, and a series of boy soloists. Like all of Britten's output, every choice of note is exactly right, yet takes you by surprise.

Herbert Howells's Like as the hart, composed while World War II raged in 1941, was achingly beautiful, unfolding with seething patience and tenderness. As the vertical harmonies become denser and more complex, the choir does not flinch; their intonation remains surgically accurate. The encore, Ubi caritas by Ola Gjeilo, brings us back down to earth, with music sensuous beyond the performers' years.

***

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