Sir Stephen Cleobury 1948-2019

Conductor & Organist

At a glance

Sir Stephen Cleobury 1948-2019

Conductor & Organist

Hearing the choir minus the impressionistic shimmer of the chapel’s reverberation only increased one’s admiration for conductor Stephen Cleobury’s achievement in maintaining such standards.
The Times (London)

Sir Stephen Cleobury has for thirty seven years been associated with one of the world’s most famous choirs, that of King’s College, Cambridge. His work at King’s has brought him into fruitful relationships with many leading orchestras and soloists, among them the Academy of Ancient Music, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the Philharmonia, Britten Sinfonia, the BBC Concert Orchestra, and the distinguished ensemble, Endymion, and he has worked with many artists – singers and instrumentalists – of international repute. He complements his work in Cambridge with many other musical activities including orchestral and choral conducting, giving organ recitals and making frequent workshop and judging appearances as a choral expert.

Biography —

SIR STEPHEN CLEOBURY was born in 1948 and began his musical education as a chorister at Worcester Cathedral. He became organ student at St John’s College, Cambridge, and subsequently Organist of St Matthew’s, Northampton, Sub-Organist of Westminster Abbey and Master of Music of Westminster Cathedral, before taking up his appointment as Organist and Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge in 1982. Between 1995 and 2007 he was also Chief Conductor of the BBC Singers. He has continued his association with the Singers as Conductor Laureate.

His work at King’s has brought him into fruitful relationships with many leading orchestras and soloists. He has sought to maintain and enhance the reputation of the world-famous Choir, broadening the daily service repertoire, commissioning new music from leading composers, principally for A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, and developing its activities in broadcasting, recording and touring. He introduced the annual festival, Easter at King’s, from which the BBC regularly broadcasts, and the series Concerts at King’s, which brings to the Chapel many world-class performers.

His influence has extended beyond King’s through the many organ scholars he has trained: the choirs at Norwich Cathedral, St George’s Chapel, Windsor, Trinity College, Cambridge, New College, Oxford, St Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, and St Thomas’s Church, New York City are all run by former organ scholars of Stephen, while other choral and organ scholars who have passed through the Choir during Stephen’s time now pursue careers as conductors, organ soloists and opera singers. During his many years as Conductor of the Cambridge University Musical Society in which he conducted most of the major works for chorus and orchestra, he nurtured generations of young musicians. He became the Society’s first Conductor Laureate in 2016.

Unusually for such a busy conductor, he has also remained active as an organist. He has played in locations as diverse as Houston and Dallas, Cape Town and Haderslev, Leeds and Birmingham Town Halls, Westminster, the Performing Arts Centre in Hong Kong and Salt Lake’s huge LDS Conference Center.

His many recordings on the organ include Bach Clavierübung Pt. 3 and the Leipzig Chorale Preludes for BBC Radio 3. Discs on the organ of King’s include albums of music by Howells and Elgar; Priory Records have released a DVD of popular repertoire; recent CDs on the King’s College label feature a disc of organ music by Liszt, Reubke and Mendelssohn and a ‘King of Instruments’ CD’, with Stephen playing music on the newly restored organ in King’s Chapel by his friends Simon Preston and George Baker, as well as works by Franck, and Mendelssohn, together with chorale preludes by Bach. Warner Classics, meanwhile, has released a disc in which Sir Stephen, on the organ, accompanies the trumpeter Alison Balsom.

Sir Stephen has played his part in serving a number of organisations in his field. He is a past President of the Royal College of Organists and of the Incorporated Association of Organists; he is President of the Friends of Cathedral Music and of the Herbert Howells Society. He was appointed CBE in 2009 and received an honorary doctorate from the University of York in 2018. He was was created a Knight Bachelor in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2019.

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Reviews —

Stephen Cleobury’s valedictory recording with the choir of King’s is suitably spectacular, with the 96kHz/24bit download making the most of the luminous chapel acoustic and the high quality of the performances throughout. The choral pieces have both finesse and exuberance. Truly demonstration quality from beginning to end – but much too good to save just to show off the hi-fi! … this is an engrossing feast of Howells

Gramophone, August 2019

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 ... On this night, Mr. Cleobury coaxed singing of great vigor, color and character from the choristers ... [who] made every word crisp and clear and sent the phrase soaring.

New York Times, April 2019

If for nothing else, Stephen Cleobury should go down as the man who really recharged the writing of contemporary choral music – not just the Christmas carol, but the fact that his commissioning has affected how people write choral music. In all four corners of the globe people switch on the radio on Christmas Eve and hear a new piece of music.

Jeremy Summerly, CD Review, Radio 3, 1 December 2018

Presiding over the lengthy and well-chosen program was the choir’s genial music director, Stephen Cleobury, who occasionally offered some charming informal commentary on the music. And what music! ... The singers have mastered the music so completely that many of them glanced only occasionally at their scores, focusing instead on Cleobury’s expressive hands and clear indications.

Seattle Times, March 2017

The restrained and precise, but passionate leadership of Stephen Cleobury, one of the world's most highly regarded choral directors, always kept the music itself centre stage.

Review of concert in Hong Kong, August 2016

There was a deserved five-minute standing ovation at the end of the performance, and especially for Stephen Cleobury who responded with characteristic modesty.

Dream of Gerontius, Cambridge Evening News, June 2016

Stephen Cleobury - minimum fuss but maximum impact at Seattle Symphony’s ‘Baroque and Wine’ concert.

Seattle Times, February 2016

​Stephen Cleobury is on peak form... These are outstanding performances by a great musician.

Gramophone Magazine, August 2015

Selected Discography —

The King of Instruments

To celebrate the refurbishment of the Harrison & Harrison organ at King’s, Cambridge, the College’s Musical Director presents a captivating sequence centred on Bach. Six of his chorale preludes are highly absorbing, not least because Cleobury finds a different registration for each. Franck’s Pièce héroïque mines a deep shaft of basso sonority that contrasts with the prevailing textural delicacy, and indeed deliciousness, of the Bach and a Mendelssohn sonata. ​ The effect is magnificent.

The Sunday Times

Bach St John Passion

The King’s Choir’s impact is immediate. I want this for the solo line up, and for the sound of the boys on top; on such good form.

Record Review, BBC Radio 3

Hymns From King's

Formidable tunes from across the liturgical year in engaging arrangements by choirmaster Stephen Cleobury. The choir's diction and tuning are excellent.

BBC Music Magazine

Duruflé Requiem

The choir and the King’s organ are beautifully caught in the famously generous chapel acoustics, tender and lyrical one moment, splendid and grand the next. Cleobury’s shaping of the climax of the Sanctus is perfectly judged. Each of the Four Motets on Gregorian melodies (1960) is a perfect miniature to which Cleobury devotes as much care as he does to the Requiem.

Classical Music Magazine
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