Stephen Cleobury's was one of many names of notable British organists with whose work I initially was familiar through recordings. After all, that is what I do, collect, assess and use recordings to get the message across.
Stephen — who died of cancer Friday at 70 — was, at that point, an estimable artist of the highest caliber. In 1982, he was appointed to follow in the footsteps of Philip Ledger and David Willcocks as director of the world-famous Choir of King's College, Cambridge.
Perhaps coincidentally, that was the same year that I began Pipedreams.
However, only after 1997, when I took up the announcing duties for our U.S. broadcasts of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, did Stephen become real to me. A friendship with him gradually developed, along with an increasing awareness on my part of what a remarkable man he was. Most choir directors usually are responsible for music only on Sunday, whereas at King's Chapel the choir sings daily during the school term. That's a lot of music to know and prepare.
Extracting extraordinary sounds from young boys is not my idea of easy work, either, yet the quality of the youthful choristers at King's is known and celebrated worldwide. And don't overlook the considerable activity beyond King's: Stephen's service to the Royal College of Organists and the Incorporated Society of Musicians, as conductor of the BBC Singers and Cambridge University Choral Society, and many guest-conducting engagements.
Beyond conducting, there was his skill as an organist, undiminished over the years, rarely if ever displayed on the home turf but regularly apparent during his international recital tours. When did he find time to practice? For all of these reasons, Stephen's reputation was fully supported by the goods he delivered.
But there is one more element, and that was his determination not only to uphold tradition but to contribute to its progression. He commissioned a new score each year, beginning in 1983, for the world broadcasts of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, thereby enriching the choral repertoire with an extraordinary array of remarkable compositions.
It was in getting Stephen to talk about this aspect of the Christmas Eve broadcast that was my first long-distance interaction with him. That opened the door for future interviews for use in our subsequent U.S. transmissions.
I finally met and interviewed him when he brought his choir to Minnesota, and again when he was a featured performer during an American Guild of Organists national convention in the Twin Cities in 2008. That next year, I was honored to be invited by Stephen to attend, for the first time, an actual Christmas Eve service at King's. This was the same year that the Chapel celebrated the 90th birthday of Willcocks.
We (my companion, Lise, plus Nick Nash, whose initiative as program director of Minnesota Public Radio brought the broadcasts of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols to the United States, and his now-wife, Karen Lundholm) had reserved seats in the Choir. We could watch Stephen and his charges doing their thing and simultaneously delight in the expression of beatific pleasure on the face of Sir David, seated across from us.
It was quite marvelous to share that day, even as my prerecorded voice was introducing the same experience to U.S. listeners. It seemed that what I had been describing for the past dozen years was finally real. Was Stephen Cleobury my friend? Yes, to the extent that we both knew and respected and admired the other's work. But I would admit that this was a lopsided friendship, considering the immensity of his stature as a musician — now Sir Stephen, since he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in June.
And what is to be made of the fact that he conducted his final concert at King's on my birthday, June 28? I only wish I could have been there!
But most importantly, what we shared in equal measure, which perhaps was at the core of our friendship, was a thorough love of music, a desire that others love it, too, and a means to help that happen. That makes us eternal comrades, I do believe. RIP, Sir Stephen.
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