A truly heavenly choir

My favourite choir, bathed in unearthly light


For all my adult life one of the treats at Christmas has been to watch, and of course listen to the carols from King’s – the choir of King’s College, Cambridge doing what in my opinion it does better than any other choir in the world.  I also love this choir playing its part in the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, even though I am a non-theist who scorns all religions – because this is pure theatre.  And though the choristers change from year to year the lovely music does not.

Part of this is nostalgia is because  I was once a girl treble and for me the magic of Christmas is intrinsically linked to the singing of carols – in the traditional way and not the ghastly mess that American pop singers make when putting out the obligatory album of Christmas music!

Yet in all my years of admiring this choir I had never had the chance to see/hear it live until MusicaViva kindly brought the King’s touring ensemble to Australia once again in 2019 – and this time, a few weeks back, I got the chance I’d so long been waiting for.

The Queensland performance was held in Brisbane’s QPAC concert hall where the mighty organ, bathed in light, seems to hang over the stage like the very voice of some awe-inspiring deity. The King’s choristers are  a youthful group, blending the voices of young adult tenors and baritones with the sublime pipe of the boy trebles and on this trip Australian audiences had the pleasure of meeting the new and comparatively youthful  conductor, Daniel Hyde, musical academic and acclaimed organist, who has replaced much-loved King’s veteran Sir Stephen Cledbury who had held the position since 1982.

The program was the usual nice blend of mostly old with a spice of new – in this case the new being the premier of Australian composer Ross Edwards’ Singing the Love, written especially for the choristers of King’s.  The composer has described it as a celebration of the whole of life and it was commissioned by West Australian businesswoman and MusicaViva subscriber Jennifer Seabrook for her husband Ray Turner’s 75th birthday.    What a present!  And what a performance! It’s a tricky piece in parts, especially for the trebles, referencing the King James version of Psalm 100 among its sources of inspiration and sounding both playful and reflective.

Other works were more traditional, beginning with four short pieces by Purcell, a lovely rendition of Finzi’s Lo, the Full, Final Sacrifice,  followed in turn by Wesley’s The Wilderness, Stanford’s For Lo, I Rise Up (it is almost obligatory to include Charles Villiers Stanford in such recitals because Cambridge University music owes so much to him), Lennox Berkeley’s version of The Lord is my Shepherd with a fine young soloist and, finally, Parry’s splendid I was Glad.

The two accompanying organists, Henry Websdale and Donal  McCann program also performed two fine solo pieces, J.S. Bach’s Kyrie, Gott heilinger Geist (Websdale) and Mendelssohn’s Sonata in A major (McCann).

The Choir of King’s College features 16 choristers, 14 choral scholars and two organ scholars and dates its origins to the reign of Henry V1 in the 15 century. The boy choristers are auditioned between the ages of six and nine and are educated at the Kings College School, close to the college.  Some of them become choral scholars in the choir when older. The choir remains firmly English in stance, dress and style and this blend of respected tradition and high musical standards developed over several centuries is what makes it unique.

Having said that, it was interesting to notice the number of people of obviously Asian origin in the audience – obviously English traditional music has a wide appeal.  And, considering the time of performance, on a week day, there was a notable number of young children there too, all very quiet and well-behaved.

I don’t know when MusicaViva plans to bring my favourite sacred music choir to Australia again.  I hope it’s soon.  And I hope those of my readers who can, will go to one of the performances.  It’s in some ways just so much more exciting than just seeing them on TV!