Stephen Cleobury

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The King's College Choir director on how he puts together the annual service

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Stephen CleoburyEvery year millions of people around the world tune into the Nine Lessons and Carols service from King’s College in Cambridge, and every year it falls to the choir’s director of music, Stephen Cleobury, to choose the carols. We spoke to him ahead of the festive service, to find out how he manages to keep this iconic event both traditional and fresh.

Every Christmas Eve the service of Nine Lessons and Carols is broadcast live on BBC Radio 4 and the World Service. But when do you start planning the programme?
In a certain sense it’s in my mind all the time – that’s to say throughout the year I’m on the look-out for ideas. The radio service has a set formula and there are certain things that are fixtures, for example, Once in Royal David’s City is at the beginning and O Come All Ye Faithful and Hark, the Herald Angels are at the end. So I have a template which I then gradually fill in. The first thing I do is approach a composer at least a year ahead to write our annual commission. And then I don’t finish it until somebody tells me there’s a deadline – and then that concentrates the mind.

And how do you strike the balance between the traditional elements that listeners love and keeping the service fresh?
It’s just a question of trying to make sure that frequently enough during the service something crops up that people recognise, and that occasionally there’s something new that freshens it up. At the same time it’s important that the carols I choose are related to the preceding reading. So, for example, if I do Three Kings from Persian Lands Afar, the place to do that is after the reading about the wise men. I hope it ends up being a judicious amalgam of old and new, set in a sequence that’s musically satisfying. I wouldn’t claim it as a creative art form but nevertheless it’s something that needs very careful thought.

Some of the boys in the choir are very young – how do you prepare them for the nerve-racking experience of performing live on radio to millions of listeners?
I find, certainly for myself, that the best antidote to nerves is very thorough and careful preparation. After all, the boys sing in the chapel five days a week during the University term, so they’ve plenty of experience of singing in a public setting. What’s most important is that we’re all concentrating 100 per cent on the music, then you’re not cluttering your mind with wondering who’s listening and whether they’re in Australia. Obviously it’s great to know the service is heard by so many people, but that’s something one can reflect upon at other times.

Which aspect of the service do you most look forward to?
I love the atmosphere in the chapel before it starts which is very quiet and expectant – I remember that struck me enormously the very first year I was here. But what is most satisfying at the time is to feel that things are going well. So there’s an enormous feeling of relief, I have to say, at half past four, when it’s finished. Later, one can reflect on the readings or particular pieces of music, but at the time it’s really a matter of total concentration.

You have conducted so many carols – do you have a favourite?
I have to be convinced in my mind that I like a particular carol or arrangement to include it in the service, so I like all the music we choose for the service. But, that said, of the carols we’ve commissioned, the general public has enjoyed Judith Weir’s Illuminare Jerusalem, which we’re performing at this year’s service. Of the pieces John Rutter has done for us my favourite is probably What Sweeter Music.

The service of Nine Lessons and Carols is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and the World Service at 3pm on Christmas Eve and repeated on Christmas Day on Radio 3 at 2pm. The annual television broadcast 'Carols from King’s' is on BBC Two on Christmas Eve at 6.15pm

The next audition for choristers for King’s College Choir takes place on 18 January 2014. For more information, email choir@kings.cam.ac.uk