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Interview: Stephen Cleobury on the Choir of King's College and Brahms' Requiem

The legendary leader of one of the most famous choirs in the world opens up about the ensemble's upcoming Hong Kong show

Written by
Ambrose Li

The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge perhaps needs no introduction to most people. Not only a household name worldwide through annual broadcasts Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, they're also one of the most well-known all-male choirs in the world. The distinguished choir, which sings six services a week in the magnificent King’s College Chapel under the direction of Stephen Cleobury, brings to Hong Kong audiences Johannes Brahms’ monumental Requiem in an upcoming concert, featuring local opera star Louise Kwong.  

A performance of Requiem consists of seven movements, and generally takes at least one hour to perform, sometimes up to a staggering 80 minutes. Naturally, its length makes it a rather demanding task for any choir to perform on tour – especially for soprano boys aged between nine and 13. When asked how the boys are coping with rehearsing and performing such a piece on such a grand scale, Cleobury reveals that 'they [the boys] are absolutely loving it'. Cleobury goes on to tell us some of the challenges that come with the performing the piece: “The fugues at the end of movements three and six require great stamina for many singers. Equally, considerable refinement is indispensable in some of the more expressive passages.”  

Despite the difficulties, the critically acclaimed Choir has most certainly risen to the challenge, having recorded the entire work accompanied by two pianists – a version arranged by the composer himself.  “The Choir have also been doing the piece movement by movement in the chapel this year in this version,” Cleobury mentions, “while we have been without the chapel organ, as it is undergoing a nine-month restoration.”  Indeed, besides singing services on a regular basis in Cambridge, the Choir is also prolific in releasing recordings, and was reviewed as being ‘as close to perfection as one could hope to hear’ by the International Record Review in 2014. The plaudits continued in Time magazine, whose reviewer wrote that they 'would happily sit in King’s College Chapel listening to this choir sing for the rest of my days'.

Although composed as a requiem, a mass for the dead, Brahms’ take on the genre is often regarded as a secular work, as the Brahms set his music to German text as opposed to the traditional Catholic Latin. Brahms also deliberately excludes the Christian dogma in the work and almost avoids the mention of Christ entirely. Although the text itself is taken from the Lutheran Bible, it has been suggested that Brahms saw it more as a literary than a theological work.  

Louise Kwong

Juxtaposed with the Requiem, Cleobury selects three other pieces written by British composers to be performed at the same concert.  His reasoning behind the decision is 'to afford some contrast and to display other areas of our broad repertoire'. “The contrast lies between one of the most celebrated works of the German Romantic tradition," he elaborates, "and the great flowering of 16th and 20th century British music.” Indeed, the programme include pieces by Renaissance men Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, as well as Benjamin Britten, a towering figure in British music of the 20th century.  

It is rumoured that Cleobury will soon be retiring after directing the Choir for 34 years, but he denies the speculation. “I’m not retiring quite yet,” he tells Time Out. “When the time does come, I shall miss the enthusiasm of the young singers, and the privilege of teaching them.”

Whether this is the last time Cleobury graces Hong Kong in a professional context or not, the upcoming performance, presented by Christine N Concerts, is one not to be missed.

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