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December 11, 2007

Review - King's Singers Christmas

New York Sun:

Within the space of a week, New York heard the two most renowned a cappella groups in the world: Chanticleer and the King's Singers. The former is a 12-man ensemble from San Francisco; the latter is a six-man ensemble from England (King's College, Cambridge). They both sang Christmas programs, Chanticleer at the Metropolitan Museum, and the King's Singers at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, not too far from the museum.

The King's Singers appeared on Saturday night, under the auspices of Great Performers at Lincoln Center. When they walked out from the wings, they were greeted by huge and sustained applause — the kind of applause usually reserved for opera stars or virtuosos. (And the King's Singers are, in a way, virtuosos.) They were founded in 1968, and their personnel keeps changing. But their essential character remains the same.

I remember when the lead countertenor, David Hurley, and the bass, Stephen Connolly, were new. Now they're veterans. And they make splendid bookends for the group. Each owns a beautiful voice, and each sings with exceptional smarts and pleasure.

According to the booklet in our hands, the King's Singers were giving a "Holiday Program." But these words fooled no one. And the singers, in their remarks to the audience, freely said "Christmas program" and "Christmas concert." One of them even said that, in this hectic season, the group intended to give us a "Christmas vocal massage."

They began with a piece long associated with them, "Totus Tuus" by Henryk Górecki, written for a visit by Pope John Paul II to Poland. This is a piece of extraordinary beauty, craftsmanship, purity, joy, and devotion. From the King's Singers, the opening cry of "Maria!" was arresting. And, as they continued, they gave the piece its due. They sang with unity, balance, taste — an awareness both musical and spiritual. They gauged the reverberation of the church surely.

And I should mention a significant fact: The King's Singers are famous maintainers of pitch. Throughout this concert, they did very little sagging, or sharping, for that matter. This makes a big difference in a choral performance (and others).

For the remainder of the concert's first half, the group alternated between movements of Palestrina's "Missa Papae Marcelli" and sacred songs by Max Reger. Palestrina wrote his mass in 1567, in order to prove to skeptical authorities that polyphony — this increasingly complex style — did not obscure words. He proved this brilliantly. Reger was born three and a half centuries after Palestrina, but he revered early music, and wrote with a timeless religious sensibility.

So, the King's Singers bounced back and forth: between Palestrina's polyphony and Reger's homophony, between Latin words and German. The group projected a holiness without being precious or overawed. They sang reverently, but did not treat the music as fragile. Underneath the church — or very near — you could hear the subway rumble. Even this didn't spoil the atmosphere. In fact, the rumbling was almost comforting. Would it be heresy to suggest that this Palestrina-Reger stretch — for all its exquisiteness, for all its undoubted excellence — was a little — just a wee bit — dull? If so, I am guilty.

After intermission, the King's Singers sang Christmas songs and carols, old and new. First came "Veni, Veni Emmanuel," which was straightforward, rather masculine — direct. Later, the "Coventry Carol" was both haunting and a little startling. That is still a somewhat freaky piece, all these centuries on.

Bo Holten is a Danish composer, born 1948, and his "Nowell sing we now" is a worthy item. It uses English and Latin, and neatly incorporates the "Coventry Carol." The great Estonian Arvo Pärt was represented, by his "Bogoróditsye Dyévo" ("Virgin Mother of God") from 1990. This piece is quick, lithe, joyous. I would very much like to hear it again; it went by so fast.

The singers closed their printed program with a piece by Ariel Ramírez, an Argentine in his late 80s: "La Peregrinaçion," from "Navidad nuestra." Here, the men were almost swinging, jazz-like, and they enjoyed themselves immensely — as they usually do. As they enjoy what they're doing, so do you, in the audience.

This is a smooth, smooth group, in their matching outfits. (On Saturday night, they wore a Christmassy red tie.) Yet "smooth" may imply a glibness of which the King's Singers are not guilty. They sang a single encore, a mixture of "Take Five" and "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" (really). Very smooth, and very cool, and very King's Singers.

Posted by acapnews at December 11, 2007 12:44 AM


The KS Christmas album with Kiri Te Kanawa was my favorite Christmas album for years. They're always great and are coming to Salt Lake to sing with the Mormon Tab Dec 13-16. I wish I could go (I'll be singing those nights in a production of Amahl and the Night Visitors), but they always tape their Christmas concerts and then release them on DVD the next year, so that gives me something to look forward to.

Posted by: M. Ryan Taylor at December 10, 2007 11:55 PM

Wow! The old guys are all gone!

Posted by: Matthewsala at December 20, 2007 5:27 PM

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