Review: With all-boy choirs up for debate, an ensemble soars

(Critic's Pick): NEW YORK — The roster of the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, inevitably keeps changing as the boys who fill it enter adolescence and move on.

Review: With all-boy choirs up for debate, an ensemble soars

But for 37 years, organist and conductor Stephen Cleobury has provided stability as its director of music, leading the ensemble that perhaps best represents the great English choral tradition.

On Monday Cleobury, who will retire from his post this summer, led the choir in a magnificent concert at St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, his last performance in America at the head of a storied ensemble that dates to 1441. Over the years he has brought the group regularly to St. Thomas, and the church was packed for this farewell.

The boys of King’s College arrived, though, as the choir’s traditions have been questioned. In December, Lesley Garrett, a British soprano, wrote an article calling the boys-only lineup an anachronism that was unfair to girls. The idea that boy treble voices have special purity is “just nonsense,” Garrett wrote.

Her broadside sparked an international debate over the singing opportunities presented to girls and the aesthetics of the choral tradition. Do boys sing with a distinctively ethereal sound? It was hard not to conclude so listening to the remarkable King’s College Choir on Monday.

And though the focused, shimmering sound of the choir’s collected voices — which includes older boys singing alto, tenor and bass parts — was splendid, the treble voices were especially wondrous. In works like Monteverdi’s “Cantate Domino” and Tallis’ “Videte Miraculum,” the trebles penetrated the choral textures even during passages when the basses and tenors were singing with youthful fervor. The sound these youngest boys make comes across as utterly natural yet somehow transient, a haunting falsetto.

Yet the quality of this choir may result not just from the innate character of boys’ voices but also from the approach to vocal training and music-making the ensemble has preserved. That British approach has sometimes been criticized as too polite and reserved. But on this night, Cleobury coaxed singing of great vigor, color and character from the choristers.

I was impressed by the attention to text. In William Byrd’s “Laudibus in Sanctis,” a setting of Psalm 150, when the Latin words call for praising the greatness of God in anthems and song, the choristers made every word crisp and clear and sent the phrase soaring. The choir sounded equally confident in 20th-century pieces by Britten (the dramatic antiphon “Praised Be the God of Love”) and Vaughan Williams (the mysterious “Valiant-for-Truth,” a setting of a text from “Pilgrim’s Progress”).

St. Thomas Church maintains its own renowned Choir of Men and Boys. And its director of music, Daniel Hyde, will be Cleobury’s successor in Cambridge. Hyde once worked under Cleobury as an organ scholar at King’s College. So the tradition continues, even as the debate goes on.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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