Daniel Hyde interview: ‘There is no plan B’ for King’s College Christmas Eve broadcast
The countdown to Christmas can definitely be heard more than most by Daniel Hyde, director of music at King’s College, Cambridge.
Not only is he in charge of one of the most famous choirs on Earth, but he’s hoping they will all keep Covid-free so that the live radio broadcast of the famous A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols broadcast can go ahead at 3pm on BBC Radio 4 on Christmas Eve.
The pandemic wreaked havoc with his plans last year and the BBC had to broadcast a recording of their rehearsal after several of the adult choir members caught Covid-19. But he’s not letting the tension affect him.
Daniel says: “I have to be honest and say we don’t have a plan B. Last year, we were able to do that because we were in lockdown. Whereas this year, thankfully, we’re not in lockdown, but that means we’re doing all our usual activities.
“So we haven’t been ahead on our Christmas repertoire. We just haven’t had a chance to record rehearsals in the same way that we were able last year – so it’s just fingers crossed, I’m afraid.”
Two ballots were held on December 13 for people to attend, with half the tickets going to Cambridge residents. Meanwhile, the choir has just completed filming the TV concert of Carols from King’s which will also be broadcast on December 24 – but not live – on BBC2.
This is usually filmed two weeks in advance of Christmas and, Daniel admits, he is very glad to have it in the bag. He says: “There’s always a bit of confusion because they are both broadcast on Christmas Eve.
“However, the radio service is broadcast live around the world. We always get letters from people afterwards and some of them say ‘I was listening in this tiny town in the middle of Missouri’. Somebody else will then say ‘You know, I was listening in India’. And of course, people hear us on the radio at totally different times of the day depending on where they are in the world. So it has an enormous reach.
“I don’t think that will be any different this year and it is always very moving to know people are listening so far away.” Preparations for the TV recording included daily lateral flow tests in the knowledge that they could have been losing choir members at any time.
“I’m very lucky that my colleagues in the school understand the importance of these Christmas broadcasts. Without locking them up, we’ve kept the kids safe and given them a normal life! My colleagues in the school are very good at minimising all the potential risks and I’m very grateful to them for doing that,” says Daniel.
“Normally we record our Easter TV broadcast first and then we shunt across to Christmas. This year we actually decided to record Christmas first because we figured that the broadcast of that is already listed. So we needed to get that made first in case something happened either just within the chapel with Covid or perhaps nationally if things have changed.
“If you’re doing daily testing, I suppose you increase the chances that you might come up with a problem, but that was the only responsible thing is to do. It does feel a little bit like a ticking time bomb. But thankfully, we had a few scares, but they came back negative and we got through unscathed.”
This year’s radio broadcast – repeated at 1pm on Christmas Day on Radio 3 – will include a new carol by composer Cecilia McDowall called There Is No Rose. It was commissioned as part of her 70th birthday celebrations.
Daniel explains: “It’s a setting of a medieval text; an allegory of Mary the mother of Jesus, of being the rose. It’s a beautiful text, which has already been set by a handful of composers but I think I think this will become a classic.
“It’s a very particular sound world that Cecilia conjures up. It’s quite mystical. It kind of hangs in the chapel. And of course in our acoustic, it can sound quite mysterious.”
This year’s concert preparations have been a particular challenge for the choir as lockdown prevented them from practising together for a long time. “We’ve worked harder in order to make it happen,” says Daniel, “just because we had this huge hiatus last year.
“So the training of a choir like ours relies on that rhythm of doing it every day. And it can take years to build that standard and maintain it and it can take a matter of months to completely undo it. So it was a
real slog during the various lockdowns to keep the educational side of it going so that we’d actually have a skilled team ready to get going in person when that was allowed.”
After the Christmas concerts, Daniel receives many letters of congratulations, but not everyone agrees with his choice of music. He says: “The postbag is usually pretty overflowing in January. Some people tell me they hated it, and I reply to everyone, even the people who write to criticise something can expect a reply from me.
“If somebody takes a dislike to something and they choose to write to me, I’ll always reply and acknowledge it and apologise but point out that maybe somebody else really liked it. But it is also very humbling for all of us that a lot of people do put it in their diary that they will tune in and it marks the beginning of their Christmas. It’s always nice to hear that.”
A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service on December 24 at 3pm and again at 1pm on Radio 3 on Christmas Day, and at various times on the BBC World Service. Carols from King’s is on BBC Two at 6.15pm on BBC Two.