Thursday, November 9, 2017

King's Singers put vocal treasure on display during their golden-anniversary tour stop at Clowes Hall

Everything was tinged with gold in the King's Singers concert Wednesday night at Clowes Hall. The male a cappella sextet is not long into a 14-month tour in
King's Singers: The current personnel of the nearly 50-year-old a cappella masters.
celebration of its founding in 1968 at King's College, Cambridge. And if many groups of its kind strike it rich from time to time, the King's Singers are Fort Knox.


Though what they offer is the result of discipline and musical insight, the six Englishmen seem to exhibit a kind of unfailing telepathy and spontaneous unanimity. Notes are attacked and released without the slightest blurring, and the sculpting of phrases has the flow and certainty of a master wood carver's. Dynamic variety is lent precisely without any blurting in the texture.

Whether the material  has a Renaissance pedigree or comes from its own lifetime, the King's Singers apparently won't rest without getting inside the right musical idiom for each piece and making a vibrant show of it. A brace of works from the far ends of its repertoire opened Wednesday's program to prove the point:
A setting of King's College founder Henry VI's prayer "Domine Jesu" was followed  by former ensemble member and brilliant arranger Bob Chilcott's "The Human Family," to a text by the revered American poet Maya Angelou. 

The latter work allowed the ensemble to exhibit a skill that was to return again and again: a knack for making the independence of each voice both stand out firmly and nestle comfortably within the texture. Accompaniment patterns almost invariably carry the same interest as the melody, which in any case tends to be passed around. Pitch security seemed unerring. 

The five voices of William Byrd's "Sing Joyfully" (a setting of Psalm 80) attained a special piquancy at the end, with crunchy dissonance at the final cadence. And, with all six men involved, a tricky arrangement of "Down by the Riverside" had them layering and rearranging the text skillfully and managing key changes without warping the blend.

Gentle humor as well as piety made for the King's Singers' most notable foray away from the Anglo-American orbit, in the four prayer settings of Francis Poulenc's "Salve Regina." The French composer's knack for fashioning plain-featured choral structures seems slightly exotic and whimsical came through particularly well in the third and fourth prayers.

The newest commission on the program, Nico Muhly's "The Door of This House," had that composer's slightly fey, idiosyncratic manner of flowering phrases subsiding into more closed, even inhibited patterns — all of it eventually making sense in a surprising way. That was a good place for intermission to occur, so that Muhly's  oddities could just hang in our heads for a while.

More conventional approaches to a cappella writing came in the second half with Richard Rodney Bennett's fervent setting of John Donne, "Sermons and Devotions," and John Rutter's fragrant interpretation of Caliban's enchanted speech about his island from Shakespeare's "Tempest."

Some putting away of the iPads and music stands allowed the sextet to move toward the end informally, in close formation to match its close harmonies. One of its hits, "You Are the New Day," made the expected good impression, and there was a pretty arrangement of "Scarborough Fair" to further charm the audience.

Even more fetching, and bringing into play some fun vocal techniques, was a wordless arrangement, with wah-wah mute imitations and other early-jazz novelties, of Duke Ellington's "Creole Love Call."  Finally, there was a spectacular, effusive rendition of Gershwin's "I Can't Sit Down," drawn from one of the few moments of collective happiness in the opera "Porgy and Bess." A bubbly South African encore  extended the collective happiness indelibly to the appreciative audience.

Each of the members acted as a genial spokesman from time to time. Prepared remarks with a few extemporaneous flourishes guided the audience and confirmed the gentlemen's charm, just as the music presented confirmed their skills. The golden-tour personnel is: Patrick Dunachie and Timothy Wayne-Wright, countertenors; Julian Gregory, tenor; Christopher Bruerton and Christopher Gabbitas, baritones, and Jonathan Howard, bass. 

They are certainly worthy successors to the ensemble I've cherished for many years on the 1975 LP "Courtly Pleasures." The pleasures offered by the King's Singers seem not to fade whether in or out of court. They are golden without tarnish.