Christmas is coming early this year. Later this month, in fact. That's when the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, internationally famous for presenting the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve each year, arrive for an Australia-wide tour for Musica Viva.
Among other works, they will perform Benjamin Britten's A Ceremony of Carols. The all-male choir is made up of 16 boys with unbroken voices, from seven years up, and 15 adult choristers, who provide the tenor and bass lines to underpin the treble.
The choir of Kings College has maintained its all-male tradition for more than 500 years.Credit:Kevin Leighton
The tour was to have been led by the legendary organist and choral director Stephen Cleobury, who is celebrating nearly four decades at the head of the choir. Ill health, however, has meant that Cleobury is passing the baton, and with it, five centuries of tradition, to his successor (and Kings College alumnus) Daniel Hyde.
It's a weighty inheritance but, as Hyde and Cleobury both agree, not one which is sacrosanct: over his 37 years in the position Cleobury has taken many innovative steps, including commissioning a new carol every year for the annual Christmas service and inviting the BBC to film inside the extraordinary fifteenth-century chapel.
But while the chapel and its choir have survived 500 years and two world wars, its continuing adherence to the all-male tradition has provoked criticism in some quarters.
How will the new director take on the challenge of twenty-first century gender politics?
"People say that the [unbroken] boy's voice is unique and that we should preserve the tradition for the sound," says Hyde. "For me, it's not so much a question of the sound. It's a broader educational consideration."
King's School is now co-educational and Cleobury has been instrumental in introducing and supporting a number of girls' and mixed youth choirs in the area. Hyde is looking forward to continuing the expansion of opportunities for all young singers. But there are no plans to dismantle the boy treble tradition.
It's not that boys sound better than girls. That's not a thing.
"I don't think it is fair on the girls to find a way for them to copy what the boys have been doing for years because that keeps them as the second team. I want girls to do an equally high standard of music without thinking that they're just copying what the boys have done.
"I've been involved in different shaped set-ups in different places and it's really taught me that one size doesn't fit all."
Lyn Williams, Music Director of Gondwana Voices, Australia's leading choral organisation specialising in young singers (of all genders), agrees wholeheartedly.
"It's not that boys sound better than girls. That's not a thing. Very often people can't tell the difference.
"Differences between choirs come about more because of the language that they speak, their mother tongue; the way that they're creating the vowel sounds will create a particular tone colour.
"For instance Sydney Children's Choir makes a very, very different sound to Gondwana Voices, the national children's choir, which has accents from all over Australia, and to Gondwana Indigenous Children's Choir, which has a quite different sound.
"And there's not one sound that is better."
There's a very great directness and honesty in the way young people communicate.
Williams is the director of this month's Gondwana World Choir Festival, which will give audiences the perfect opportunity to compare for themselves.
More than 1000 choristers from Canada, France, Estonia, Latvia, USA, Japan and China, as well as from all over Australia, will be appearing at the Sydney Opera House as part of the festival, which coincides with Gondwana Voices' thirtieth anniversary year.
There are all girls' choirs and mixed choirs, and even the dynamic Inner Mongolia Youth Choir, who, aside from giving exuberant performances of contemporary Mongolian music, also demonstrate their region's mysterious tradition of throat singing.
The choirs will perform individually and together and, Williams hopes, will make many new friends. "It doesn't take young people long, especially when they've got something so strong in common. And they all have that same sort of goal of excellence."
What is it about young voices in particular that is so compelling?
"There's a very great directness and honesty in the way young people communicate because they feel things," says Williams. "They sing with that intensity that they are living through in their lives."
The Gondwana World Choir Festival, July 15-21, Sydney Conservatorium of Music. The Choir of King's College Chapel, Cambridge, tours nationally starting in Perth on July 20, then visiting Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.
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