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Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Great Vibrations

AS THE KING’S SINGERS eased into the end of Billy Joel’s “Lullabye,” the sonority of the shifting chords produced one of those silent audience reactions that every performer hopes for: a sense of transformation touched with a sense of awe. Six men comprise the ensemble, as has been the case for the group’s half-century of existence. The personnel has changed over the years, but slowly, slipstreaming in those replacement members to keep the sound the same.

The King's Singers | Photo by Marco Borggreve
The performance Tuesday evening at Proctors in Schenectady was a welcome return for the group, last seen here in 2010. They’re not a house-filler, which is a shame, but some intermission eavesdropping suggested that many in the audience were themselves ensemble singers and longtime fans.

A programming style has evolved over the years, placing sacred works and commissions towards the beginning, then moving into madrigals and the more popular stuff. With a just-released 3-CD set celebrating the group’s 50th anniversary to promote, most of the selections were drawn from that playlist, starting with “The Founder’s Prayer,” a decades-old setting (by Henry Ley) of a centuries-old text (by Henry VI). The closing “amen” had a slight raggedy moment in synchronizing that second syllable, and that was the last such problem I picked up as the concert moved elegantly on.

The prayerful effect was heightened by the iPads-only lighting that glowed from the music stands below. The group had more traditional lighting thereafter, although subtle differences complemented the contrasting nature of the songs.

Bob Chilcott sang with the Singers from the mid-80s for a dozen years, and has supplied the group with a steady stream of arrangements and original compositions. “We Are” is his setting of a Maya Angelou text recognizing our human similarities, an inspiring ode that’s needed now more than ever, as one of the performers explained.

They take turns introducing the works, always with easygoing charm. They are countertenors Patrick Dunachie and Timothy Wayne-Wright, tenor Julian Gregory, baritones Christopher Bruerton and Cristopher Gabbitas, and bass Jonathan Howard, each a lush-voiced soloist who also blends with the others for a sound that seems like so many more than six.

A set of madrigals ensued, deftly mixing language and style as we traveled from France (“Revecy venir du Printans” by Claude Le Jeune) through Spain (Juan Vásquez’s “Gentil señora mia”) to Germany (“Das G’läut zu Speyer” by Ludwig Senfl. And then it was back to France for a more recent work, Saint-Saëns’s witty setting of Théobald Saint-Félix’s “Les Marins de Kermor.”

Several of the group’s many recordings feature folk songs, three of which added more contrast: Goff Richards’s arrangement of the traditional Mancunian (but actually Cornwall-based) “Lamorna,” an amusing morality tale, and two more Chilcott settings: “Shenandoah,” the melodic elements weaving affectingly from solo to multiple voices, and “I Bought Me a Cat,” its sexist payoff brought credibly up to date.

Takemitsu’s “Handmade Proverbs” is another recent commission, and it’s on the new album, which is good: I’m eager to hear it a few more times. It sets four Haiku, and, not surprisingly with such economy of words, there’s more waiting to be revealed.

Beatles songs climaxed the first half. The King’s Singers have had great success with this material, and when the arrangements are as loving as what Bill Ives (another former King’s Singer) did with “I’ll Follow the Sun” and Chilcott’s haunting “And I Love Her,” they prove the staying power of this material. Paul Hart’s “Honey Pie” is a crowd-pleaser, allowing the singers a full measure of goofiness. The first set finished with “Quintessentially,” a new song by Alexander L’Estrange that salutes the group’s history by re-lyricking some of its repertory, taking us from “The Oak and the Ash” through “I’m a Train,” “Now Is the Month of Maying,” “Danny Boy,” “And So It Goes,” “Good Vibrations” – the list is lengthy, effectively capturing the spirit of the “six voices (that) sound as one.”

A shorter second part took us from John Rutter’s gentle setting of Shakespeare, “Be Not Afeard,” to “A Finer Music,” an excerpt from the fascinating “To Stand in This House,” in which Nico Muhly sets a politically charged speech by Zadie Smith.

The popular songs that followed ranged from Harold Arlen to John Legend to the Beach Boys, and then it was Joel’s “Lullabye,” bringing the most sustained applause. An a cappella, lip-buzzing March section from Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” in longtime collaborator Daryl Runswick’s arrangement brought the small crowd to its feet, and we were soothed again by a beautiful rendition of “Loch Lomond.” The King’s Singers offer vocal harmony at its very best, an always amazing reminder of the power of the human voice to articulate our most cherished sentiments.

The King’s Singers
Proctors, Schenectady, NY
7 November 2017

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