We were in for a treat this week, with an alternative Music Evening organised by King’s Assistant Director of Music, Hon OV Christopher Allsop. Christopher led an enthralling ‘Michael Parkinson’-style zoom interview with OV and internationally acclaimed conductor, Nicholas Cleobury (Ch 58-68). We were also delighted to be joined in the zoom event by some 80 members of the King’s family: OVs, current pupils, current and former staff.
King’s Director of Music, Hon OV Simon Taranczuk opened the evening with an introduction to Music at King’s School today; despite the very real restrictions on live performances since the start of the school year, Simon was very pleased to share that there have, nonetheless, been over 50 concert performances online during lockdown, including a series of OV concerts. Simon also talked about the many young OVs currently either studying music or on music scholarships at university and music college, a testament to the important place that music plays in school life today and the quality of music provision at the School.
Christopher invited Nicholas to talk about his formative years at King’s and we learnt that Nicholas arrived on College Green aged 7 when his brother, the late Sir Stephen Cleobury (Ch 57-67) came for a choral scholarship trial. Although Nicholas was in fact too young to join the choir, he was allowed in at the same time as his brother.
St Alban’s played an important part in Nicholas’s early years at King’s and, even as an older student at King’s Senior School, he used to go back to St Alban’s and run a small choir. All choristers were boarders at St Alban’s and, although Stephen and Nicholas only lived in Birmingham, nevertheless they boarded at King’s – first in St Alban’s and then later in Choir House. The organist at the time that the boys joined the choir was Douglas Guest, and one of the highlights from this time, Nicholas recalled, was singing in the 2nd performance of Britten’s War Requiem and at the opening of Coventry Cathedral. On Douglas’s departure, came the “fabulous appointment” of Christopher Robinson and a year later, as his assistant, Hon OV Harry Bramma. This was an incredible combination. Harry Bramma was, Nicholas said, “a wonderful teacher, an inspiration and a friend to this day.”
During the evening, music was shared with the guests, featuring musicians who have influenced Nicholas’s life. The first music track was the opening of Leighton’s Magdalen Service, conducted by Christopher Robinson. Leighton was Nicholas’ teacher at Oxford.
Nicholas also recalled his English teacher, Martin S. Fagg with fondness, as being someone who was another “complete inspiration” and Colin Beswick, the Precentor who married Nicholas and Heather and also baptized their son, Simon. Nicholas also talked about the excitement when Paul McCartney came to visit College Green when he was courting Jane Asher (during a visit to her uncle, a Canon who lived on College Green). Whilst Nicholas claims he himself was “not sporty” at school, he understands how important it is nowadays to have “music and sport side by side” in School.
Over the years, Nicholas enjoyed taking part in the Three Choirs Festivals, with wonderful musical memories of the conductor Sir Adrian Boult (later his teacher) and the music of Elgar and combined with his love of cricket, remembering how (prior to the mobile-phone era) the test scores for Worcester County Cricket were put up on the hymn board in the cathedral during rehearsals!
The second piece of music was part of Messiaen’s Dieu Parmi Nous, (played by his later boss, Simon Preston), and Nicholas talked about how his first exposure to Messiaen’s music “opened the world to me … the colour, the vigour” and he decided that was the moment, “I want a bit of this”.
Christopher asked Nicholas at what age did he realise that Music would be his life’s career and Nicholas said that, although he felt music was always there, it took a while for him to have the confidence to realise it was a career for him. He recalls having tea in the House of Commons with then MP for Worcester, Peter Walker, about possibly going into politics, who asked him, “What do you think you’re best at?” to which Nicholas replied, “Music”. The response was “Well, do that then!”. It became clearer and clearer as time went on that Music would be a permanent and important part of Nicholas’s life. After King’s Nicholas went on to Worcester College, Oxford, where he was organ scholar and Assistant at Christ Church, and out of this came a number of significant things, such as being conductor of the Schola Cantorum choir, and also an introduction to composer Michael Tippett, who was “such an influence and a great man”.
The third piece of music was the opening of the first movement of Tippett’s Second Symphony.
Turning back to the current day, Christopher posed the question to Nicholas, “Who are the composers that King’s current pupils should be looking at now?” and Nicholas mentioned George Benjamin and James MacMillan, but he also encouraged the students to “listen to other music! Listen, listen, listen!”. Christopher explained that the current A Level syllabus at King’s has a module on 21st Century Music, which allows for a study of contemporary composers.
After Tippett, Nicholas then launched himself into a career of conducting and directing and “after four years at Christ Church, I decided my future lay in orchestral and operatic music. I learnt my trade being a chorus-master, working with many leading conductors, such as Simon Rattle.” Nicholas spent some years as chorus master at Glyndebourne and then worked freelance in Europe, Scandinavia and beyond, including 15 years with Zurich Opera.
More recently Nicholas has been more involved in teaching,recently spending over three years in Brisbane, Australia. Two highlights Nicholas recalled were conducting the 50th anniversary of Tippett’s ‘A Child of our Time’, in the Adelphi Theatre in the Strand, involving a lot of big-name soloists who all performed for free, with the proceeds from the event going to the Save The Children charity. Secondly, Nicholas remembered conducting a performance of Handel’s Messiah in Soweto, translated into several African languages, with choirs from Springs and Soweto Townships. Prior to the concert, he was invited to get changed at the home of one of the organisers, “in the same room where Mandela and others plotted against apartheid”, which brought a powerful and poignant meaning to the performance that afternoon.
Finally, Christopher asked Nicholas, “As music re-emerges and re-awakens after this pandemic, is there anything you would like to see change or develop?” Nicholas replied, “I hope that we have all realised that music is not an add-on but an essential part of life. We will come back appreciating it and I hope that music of quality is not thought to be elitist. Music is for everyone, no matter your colour or sexuality. Let’s appreciate it and not denigrate it.”
Nicholas’s final piece of music was Elgar, very fitting for us here at King’s – the climax of the 2nd movement of the Second Symphony. For Nicholas, “Elgar gets inside every fibre of my body, he combined majesty with pain”. Nicholas is sure that “Elgar stayed in Castle House during the Three Choirs festival”. Nicholas sang Elgar’s music under Christopher Robinson and Harry Bramma, saying “to describe it as a privilege is an under-statement”.
Nicholas ended the evening with a quote from one of his great inspirations, Michael Tippett, “If, in the music I write, I can create a world of sound wherein some of my generation can find refreshment for the inner life, then I am doing my work properly.”
A video of the evening can be found online HERE and we offer a heartfelt thank you to Nicholas for sharing with us such an entertaining, inspiring and interesting dialogue.