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Red Light On ... Once in Royal ...

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Simon Vivian Simon Vivian | 13:20 UK Time, Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Choir of King's College Chapel, Cambridge, with conductor, Stephen Cleobury

Simon Vivian is producing the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols for the first time this year. Here, he describes the big day, and the big day before...

The 'Red Light' moment at the beginning of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols has to be the biggest of the year. Many listeners tell us that that moment of stillness on Christmas Eve before the treble soloist steps forward to begin 'Once in Royal David's City' is the moment when their Christmas begins. As broadcasters, it's one of the moments when you know that it's not just the Radio 4 or Radio 3 audience, but a worldwide audience which is tuning in to an act of worship made unique not just by the choir, but by the atmosphere of King's College Chapel in Cambridge, and the choice of music - including new and unfamiliar pieces.

When we broadcast live services on Radio 4, we're used to meeting the 'pips' and The Archers, of course, wait for no-one. Last year's Red Light moment produced its own frisson in a way of which the listening audience would have been quite unaware. The signal to be ready is a flashing red light, at which point the organ scholar knows to wind up his improvisation on the chorister's starting note. Last year, the organist was extra-efficient and brought his voluntary to a swift conclusion when the light began to flash, leaving conductor Stephen Cleobury - and the soloist - a wait while the continuity announcer in Broadcasting House finished the opening announcement. The gap ended up at 45 seconds, which must have been a terrible length of time for the chorister to keep the note in his head. He was spot on, of course!

The TV service is recorded in mid-December - there's some shared repertoire so I compare music notes with the TV team, but the radio service starts a couple of days ahead for the riggers. This is because, with a full candle-lit chapel, the danger of trailing cables and the importance of not allowing technical equipment to intrude on the atmosphere of a religious service, we sling the microphones from the chapel's fan-vaulting rather than using microphone stands, which no-one would pretend are nice to look at. At Choral Evensong broadcasts I remind the congregation that they're in an act of worship, not a recording session, and this is especially important as the King's service is the college's gift not only to the people of Cambridge, but to the world.

It's the day before the broadcast and I've just arrived in Cambridge. Part of tomorrow's schedule is the recent tradition of broadcasting the Radio 4 Daily Service from the Chapel - we have done it in the queue outside, but now we're inside with the Choral Scholars - this year, the college's new Dean, the Rev Dr Jeremy Morris, is presenting for the first time, so today I'll be rehearsing with the clergy and singers; later we're joined by the choristers for a music rehearsal for the big event - now our chief sound engineer Steve Richards can get an idea of the choir blend. After the rehearsal, Stephen Cleobury, the organ scholar, and representatives from the choir will come into the sound van and listen to the rehearsal recording, so that they can have an idea of the sound balance (albeit without congregation) and make adjustments.

We finish at 7pm, then Stephen will do what a lot of choral directors do these days - instead of taking up time at the beginning of a rehearsal with giving individual notes, he will email them to all of the singers so that they can mark up their scores themselves.

Armed with their notes, the choral scholars are back on the morning of Christmas Eve; their first commitment is the Daily Service, then we have the lesson readers in to rehearse - the chaplain, the Rev. Richard Lloyd Morgan (a professional singer) takes a close interest in this, and as there is no Public Address system to help the readers, balance has to be handled carefully. Interestingly,  the acoustics really help the wonderful, familiar words of the King James Bible come through in unaccented, fluid speech.

There's a final rehearsal before lunch - we hear the organ voluntaries (there is virtually a whole organ recital to build the atmosphere for the congregation, before the microphones go live). Then the choral scholars go out as 'Collegium Regale' to entertain the people in the queue which snakes all the way round the court at King's.

After that, it's the countdown to the Red Light. I first heard the broadcast live in 1978 when I was 8, and I still feel that same sense of excitement. For all the comfortable familiarity of the event, as a radio producer the question which still intrigues me is, what special moment or atmosphere will be captured this year, and how will the carols which are new contribute to that? This year there's an arrangement of The Holly and the Ivy by June Nixon, long-serving director of music at St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne, and of course the commission is by the great Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, who's also written the text - it's about the gifts presented by the Magi, and about the greatest gift of all - the birth of Jesus - given by God to us all. I'm sure that will be quite something!

 

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