As Stephen Cleobury approached his retirement as music director of the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, in 2019, he could look back on an extraordinary career during which he had fundamentally shaped that venerable institution artistically. He has championed contemporary music to a degree unusual for a conductor at the heart of the English choral tradition.
Cleobury (pronounced "CLOW-bury" with the first syllable rhyming with "how") was born in Bromley, in Kent County in south east England, on December 31, 1948. His younger brother, Nicholas Cleobury, is also a conductor. Cleobury's musical career began, as with so many other choral directors, as a boy soprano, in his case at Worcester Cathedral. Cleobury attended St. John's College, Cambridge, as an organ scholar, studying organ and choral music with David Willcocks and George Guest. His first post was as sub-organist at Westminster Abbey. In 1976, he conducted a new work, The Lion of Suffolk, by Malcolm Williamson at a memorial service for Benjamin Britten, and he has continued to emphasize contemporary music in his programming. He also worked at the Northampton Grammar School and St Matthew's Church in Northampton in the 1970s. In 1979, Cleobury was promoted to master of music at Westminster Cathedral. He moved to King's College as music director in 1982, a position which also involved conducting the school's centuries-old choir. To general listeners, the choir may be best known for its annual, internationally broadcast Christmas-season Festival of Lessons and Carols, which Cleobury has revivified through the commissioning of a new work for the event each year. He became director of the Cambridge University Musical Society in 1983; with that university-wide choral-orchestral group he was able to conduct larger works, including a new piece in 2009 by Peter Maxwell Davies, The Sorcerer's Mirror, that addressed the threat of climate change and marked the 800th anniversary of Cambridge. Cleobury also served as director of the BBC Singers from 1995 to 2007, and has continued to be associated with the group as conductor laureate.
He has led the Choir of King's College in recordings for a wide variety of labels, as organist as well as choir director, on the choir's own label in the 2010s. For that imprint he released a recording of Herbert Howells' An English Mass in 2019. That year he announced his retirement from his King's College post; his influence will continue to be felt in the many choral arrangements he had made, in use at King's and around the world. ~ James Manheim