With the holiday season upon us, Lincoln Center is gearing up for festivities. And on December 8, at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, concertgoers have an opportunity to receive a dose of warmth and cheer by spending an evening with six of the world's pre-eminent, respected and popular vocalists — the men known collectively as the King's Singers.
The tradition of the Choir at King's College, Cambridge is a long one, dating back to Henry VI. Within the choir there is a rotating roster of 14 choral scholars, which represents the mature voices in the choir. The scholars' duties include concert appearances, tours and daily services in the King's Chapel. They take all of their music courses together and have their own table in the college dining hall. It should come as no surprise that they develop a fierce group identity and a unique blend.
In 1965, a few scholars made a recording of some of the non-religious music they had been working on, and from there six of them went on tour, calling themselves "Six Choral Scholars from King's College." They wore uniforms as ungainly as their chosen name: various colored corduroy jackets, oddly clashing bowties and loose-fitting dark trousers. Their sometimes-serious, sometimes-popular repertoire impressed, and in 1968, they were invited to sing with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields in London. Searching for a catchier name, "The King's Singers" was suggested for their classical repertoire and "The King's Swingers" for the popular. Happily, the men opted for the former for all their appearances.
From the beginning, their sound, which draws on madrigal, barbershop-quartet and Renaissance-choir styles, has been exceptional. None of the original six remains, though the vocal make-up — two countertenors, tenor, two baritones, and bass — has been consistent. The replacements, with one exception, came one-at-a-time, and because of the overlap, the style has remained intact. Individual voices differ, of course, but the texture and mix have remained eerily comparable. From the appearance of their first album in 1971, the group's special qualities were apparent. The King's Singers achieved a "mix of vocal perfection and effortless poise," wrote one critic. "The finest vocal ensemble in the world, " wrote another. The group now has over 70 recordings to its credit and is beloved worldwide.
In fact, the King's Singers have been around for so long and are so ubiquitous that they are practically taken for granted. Whether they sing music by the Beatles or the Beach Boys, folk tunes, Gilbert and Sullivan, or jazz with George Shearing, they are so approachable, witty and entertaining that it is easy to forget that their repertoire includes remarkably difficult works by Tallis, Lasso, Palestrina, Gesualdo, Penderecki, Berio, Rorem and Ligeti. More than any other a cappella group, the King's Singers has made diversity their calling card, never bowing to or condescending to any music they sing. Indeed, the album of Beatles' songs is more respected and adored than scorned by fans on both classical and popular sides of the fence. The group sings hundreds of works in a dozen languages. Should their seriousness of purpose be questioned, all one has to do is hear them.
And what better season than this to experience the group's universality? The concert's opening piece, Totus Tuus, composed by Henryk Górecki in 1987, is a five-line serene vow of commitment to the Virgin Mary that exhibits the Singers' flawless control of dynamics and concentration. Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli, from about 1560, was a revolutionary work for its time: The Pope, upset that the complex polyphony being composed at the time was drawing attention to itself and away from the text — the actual message — demanded clarity and Palestrina supplied it. Legend has it that a few years later Pope Pius IV threatened to ban music from the church but opted against it after hearing Palestrina's work. Regardless, Palestrina's first Agnus Dei contains some of the most lush and exquisite six- and seven-part writing imaginable. With the King's Singers' impeccable diction, the words can, indeed, be understood and the difficult polyphonic writing is crystal clear.
Sprinkled between the mass movements are four of Max Reger's eight Geistliche Gesänge ("Spiritual Songs"), Op. 138. Rarely performed, each is less than three minutes long, clear-cut and essentially homophonic. As Robin Tyson, King's Singers countertenor puts it, "The four short pieces are reminiscent of Bach chorales. They serve as palate cleansers to the glorious Palestrina Mass, whilst tracing their own journey from morning to evening. 'Morgengesang' is a hymn of thanks and praise in the beauty of the new day. 'Unser lieben Frauen traum' honors the Virgin at the foot of the cross. The Agnus Dei is the most gorgeous setting of the mass text, which goes straight into the Palestrina version. And in 'Nachtlied', we lie down to sleep protected by God's angels, ready to wake next day to begin the 'Morgengesang' afresh."
The ten carols that close the program represent seven languages across five centuries and allow the Singers to shine in different ways. Those searching for wildly updated versions of "Jingle Bells" and "Deck the Halls" should look elsewhere. It is perhaps here that the six men exhibit their dedication to poise, intonation and blend most simply. Baritone Philip Lawson has arranged "Veni, Veni Emmanuel," beginning as simple chant and opening gradually, as a flower; the French song "Noël nouvelet," with its whispering motif, is given a gentle marching rhythm and broad vocal range, and the famous "Coventry Carol" finds an exquisite version with momentary, thorny dissonances. Rarities include the charming Polish-Ukranian "Szczo to za prediwo," the smooth-as-silk "La Peregrinación" by the Argentinian Ariel Ramirez, and a spectacular, one-minute-long, upbeat song to the Virgin, "Bogoroditsye Devo" by Arvo Pärt.
When a King's Singers concert is over, the audience is invariably left in awe at the ability of music to communicate through genres, centuries and languages. The effortless pleasure of what they do has been making people happy for almost forty years. As critic David Vernier has put it, they offer "nothing but absolutely first-class musicianship, top-notch arrangements, and always thoughtfully chosen, entertaining repertoire." At this time of year — or any time — a music lover can ask no more.
Robert Levine is Senior Editor for ClassicsToday.com and the editor for the forthcoming Magnum Opus series of music books from Continuum Books.