November 12, 2008

Boys will be Boys

A 40th anniversary concert of The King's Singers


John McCabe (b. 1939)
John Bennet (c. 1575-1614)
Thomas Weelkes (1575-1623)
György Ligeti (1923-2006)
Edward Johnson (c. 1600)
John Bartlett (?-1610?)
John Wilbye (1574-1638)
Howard Goodall (b. 1958)
Edward Pierce (16th/17th centuries)
Thomas Vautor (1580/92-c. 1620)
Thomas Morley (1557-1602)


The King's Singers

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Boys will be Boys

A 40th anniversary concert of The King's Singers

by Paul Moor

When the present-day incarnation of that ultra-British institution world-famous as The King's Singers appeared in the Berlin Philharmonie's Kammermusiksaal, the quietly splendid appearance of those six young English gentlemen evoked in at least one auditor not Great Britain's Cambridge University, which spawned the original group 40 years ago, but New England's Ivy League Yale - and, of all things, its traditional Whiffenpoof drinking song, specifically the line "Gentlemen songsters out on a spree..." No matter what these visiting choristers gave us (all of it a capella, as always), one sensed that they had the time of their lives. So, for that matter, did the audience, which vociferously showed it.

Two counter-tenors, one tenor, two baritones, and one bass compose the group. The original sextet sang for the sheer fun of it (and, with luck, free beer) until the distinguished conductor Neville Marriner (then not yet Sir Neville) discovered them in 1968 and gave them their first important boost up professionally, which their first Australian tour in 1972 made firm. Over the decades, a total of 19 individual King's Singers have come and gone. Their overall style remains understated, with much more piano than forte, and a homogenized vocal blending one rarely encounters in any vocal group, no matter how large or small. From time to time during their Berlin program (the final stop on an Austro-German tour that began in Linz, with subsequent gigs in Fulda, Munich, and Bremen), as many as three singers peeled off from the group to move into the background while the remaining trio or quartet did a smaller-scale momentary thing.

They gave the program they offered us a duplex title: "The best of the past 30 years" and, because of parts of its content, "Birds, Bats, and Beasts". It ranged all the way from Thomas Morley (1557-1602) to John McCabe (b. 1939). Overtones of the rock-solid musicological scholarship that has always distinguished The King's Singers, in no matter what momentary personnel or period, remain as stable as the Rock of Gibraltar.

The legendary choir of Cambridge University's King's College, thanks to the pride the British Broadcasting Corporation takes in this annual Yuletide event, has long remained a kind of cantus firmus in my own calendar: the BBC World Service makes it possible to preserve world-wide a fundamental English choral tradition famed as "Six Lessons and Carols", always beginning with one of my all-time favorite carols, "Once in Royal David's City" - totally unknown to me during my first quarter-century as an American; stateside choruses please note.

The appearance of Hungary's György Ligeti in this line-up took me by surprise, and even more so the title of the suite from which we got four excerpts: Nonsense Madrigals - hardly what one has long since come to expect from this heterodox avant-gardist, whose works regularly figured in such exclusive festivals as Donaueschingen and Darmstadt. Some of the texts he chose also proved surprising for their familiarity, for instance two Lewis Carroll tidbits of whimsy most Anglophone kids everywhere grow up with: "Twinkle twinkle little bat" and The Lobster Quadrille ("'Will you walk a little faster?' said a whiting to a snail....").

Here in Berlin, as apparently just about everywhere else in the world, musical journalism appears on its last leg: I can find only one review this concert - considerably above average even for Berlin - attracted. At least in the Morgenpost Martina Helmig wrote: "They already sang 'crossover' even before the invention of that expression [and] they took the Beatles just as seriously as they did Gesualdo.... Old madrigals, Japanese folk songs, novelties from Ligeti - these six carefree Britons plunder the treasure chests of all musical history. Whatever their vocal cords touch turns into special King's Singers gold...." I could scarcely agree more.

I do personally quibble with the sort of afterthought the printed program labelled "Simple Gifts" (on which point I think they might have at least given a nod of credit to Aaron Copland for having retrieved from virtually total oblivion that old 100% American Shaker hymn he immortalized in the variations that conclude his Appalachian Spring). It both surprised and startled me to experience the abrupt transformation that came when our exceptionally cultivated - and demanding - Berlin audience, which already had generously manifest its appreciation for what had gone before, underwent an instantaneous transformation when those unsuspected cut-ups onstage suddenly "got down" in accord with the run-of-the-mill pop stuff they then so generously shovelled out to us. That did I suppose prove the reliable truth, should we still need one, that boys, even including such fine young English gentlemen as these, will indeed be boys - and clearly get one hell of a bang out of doing it.