virtuosi: The King’s Singers.
Legendary choral conductor Sir David Willcocks likes to tell
the story of a group of singers who worked with him at King’s
College in the mid-1960s and aspired to go out on their own.
“You’ll never make it,” he told the Schola Catorum Pro Musica
Profana, as they began calling themselves. After achieving
considerable success as the King’s Singers, the group has
made a point of saving a seat for Sir David at their annual
Albert Hall concert—a seat that Willcocks happily occupies.
Kicking off a three-week U.S. tour, the King’s Singers stopped
in Schenectady last Friday, returning to Proctors’ mainstage
with a program leaning to the more pop-oriented numbers that
make up much of their repertory.
It began with a 1988 arrangement by former Singers tenor Bob
Chilcott of five American folksongs including, and under the
title, of “Simple Gifts”—but beginning with a classic shipwreck
song titled “Golden Vanity” that highlighted the group’s signature
style, creating harmony and rhythmic accompaniment through
the deft use of vocalise and lyric fragments.
The six voices cover an unexpected range, with two counter-tenors
at the top (David Hurley and Timothy Wayne-Wright), one tenor
(Paul Phoenix), two baritones (Philip Lawson and Christopher
Gabbitas) and the very strong anchor of bass Stephen Connolly.
Others in the set were “The Lazy Man” (also known as “The
Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn”), “Black is the Color of My True
Love’s Hair” and “I Bought Me a Cat.” The last featured an
appropriate set of vocal effects as a barnyard’s worth of
animals is collected and impersonated. And, to ramp up the
virtuosic stakes, a hard-to-predict sequence of hand-claps
also punctuated the song.
But their work on the ballads was most astonishing. The harmonies
were, as we take for granted with this group, dead on. The
phrasing is precise yet supple, each phrase ending as perfectly
as it began. Tone color is so carefully shaded that timbre
is treated as another instrumental effect. And the last chord
on “Black” was as riveting as a pianissimo can be.
And what a joy to hear an a cappella performance that was
The most recent work on the program was Peter Louis van Dijk’s
“Horizons,” a commission from 1995 that cleverly laments the
fate of the South African San bushmen, who cave-painted in
the 18th century their first sight of the European sailors
who eventually would all but eradicate them.
Disguised as a lullaby, the three sections of the piece used
sighs, hums and fingersnaps to evoke an exotic mood, a mood
of peace that surrenders with despair to the fate ahead. A
beautiful piece of words and music, shattering in its seeming
A trio of songs from the Spanish renaissance finished the
first part, culminating in another shipwreck song: Mateo Flecha’s
“La Bomba,” a longtime showpiece for the King’s Singers with
joyful harmonies and a built-in array of crowd-pleasing comic
effects that were acted out with somewhat more brio than when
I last saw it performed.
Part two, announced from the stage, began with British classics
that included “The Water Is Wide” and a beautiful “Greensleeves.”
And then—why not?—Randy Newman’s “Short People,” Duke Ellington’s
wordless “Creole Love Call,” Freddie Mercury’s “Seaside Rendezvous”
and Richard Rodney Bennett’s arrangement of Harold Arlen’s
“It’s a New World,” originally sung by Judy Garland in A
Star is Born.
With Valentine’s Day ahead, Harry Connick, Jr.’s “Recipe for
Love” seemed an appropriate finish, but, oh, the audience
didn’t want to let them go. And when the single encore, “Blackbird,”
was announced, the crowd practically groaned with pleasure.
Now, I hate covers of Beatles songs as much as the next tasteful
listener, but the King’s Singers have made this one their
own, and it’s an astonishing showpiece. What a great way to
end the show.