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February 22, 2005

Fit for a king?

Kansas City Star (KS):

The King's Singers clown around like six overgrown cherubs, sing like only slightly fallen angels and put on a show that has something for everyone. Their Harriman program Saturday at the Folly Theater was a variety show, with arid wit, song-and-dance, a mini-drama and introductions that included enough quirky pronunciations (“a central figgah of the Ruh-NAY-sahnce”) to remind us where these singers were from.

They are two countertenors, a tenor, two baritones and a bass. The concert was great fun, if a tad familiar. It was worth it to hear the peerless renderings of English Renaissance pieces that opened the program, sung with impressive polish and balance by singers raised in the direct tradition. Their sonority in Byrd's “Haec dies” was pristine and radiant, with a final chord that rang like a pipe organ and elicited audible exclamations from those around me.

The disembodied quality of the sound served Tallis' quiet “If Ye Love Me,” and their sophisticated knowledge of the style brought out the subtle tonal surprises of that composer's “Salvator mundi.” Also in a serious vein were Three Estonian Psalms by Cyrillus Kreek, a tonalist who flourished in the mid-20th century. Their textures plumbed the unexpected, like the florid melody of the first psalm, over a drone of gentle chords.

The second psalm reveled in low voices, with that roaring bass that we associate with Eastern church traditions. A third injected enough bluesy harmonies as to sound downright soulful. The lighter side of the Renaissance showed up in three Spanish pieces, from the profane “La Tricotea” (sung with a nasal buzz) to a tender, forgettable lament. The mini drama “La Bomba” was in the genre called “ensalada” (salad), in which the singers all mimed and acted out roles as they sang a parable about repentant sailors rescued at sea.

Humor came especially naturally to the impish Stephen Connolly, who kept reminding me of the British TV character Mr. Bean, and seemed to relish the resemblance. But all six have a good sense of comic timing, and they clearly enjoy making people laugh — which they did with broadly farcical shtick that might not seem as funny if it were not coming from such a “serious” bunch of lads.

Paul Patterson's “Time Piece” included plenty of unconventional elements, from clock sounds to guitar strumming and imitations of Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong. Especially ingenious were the hollow, Ligeti-like sounds of the opening, meant to depict the creation of the world. (“If you cough during this, you might miss a day or two,” one singer warned us.)

The final set included Whiffenpoof-like arrangements of “Penny Lane,” “The Turtledove,” the spiritual “Let's Go Down to the River to Pray” (popularized in the film “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?”). The most dazzling novelty was the rendition of Duke Ellington's “Creole Love Call,” with wordless imitations of saxophones, trombones and especially trumpets (with or without mute). A racing “William Tell” Overture was perhaps too subtle for its own good, almost getting lost in the laughs. Libby Larsen's “A Lover's Journey: Four Valentines” rounded out the program — American music for an American audience.

The four pieces contained enough rhythmic dynamism and text-illustration to keep the mind occupied. Larsen used rapid-fire repetition to represent Petruccio's insistence on marrying Kate (in the third valentine, set to words from “The Taming of the Shrew”). The singers' precision and commitment here was admirable, though the music generally struck me as inconsequential, except for the luscious setting of the bard's “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?” As encores we were served a Greek version of “Old MacDonald” (yes, there were funny farm-animal sounds) and “A Groovy Kind of Love.” It was, for me, an ignoble ending to a program that had begun so loftily.

Posted by acapnews at February 22, 2005 12:17 AM