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 unamplified!
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 simplicity.
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.