They’re often mistaken for the King Sisters or the King Family Singers, but the King’s Singers are actually a six-piece a capella group founded 26 years ago by students at Cambridge University’s King’s College.
And until you’ve experienced them live, you can’t know how good they are.
Here in the States, where choral music is associated with - with what? Robed church choirs? Barbershop quartets? Little old ladies in matching skirts? - choral music doesn’t often get the credit it’s due.
Maybe we think it’s too serious to be fun, too musty to be hip.
But here’s the truth: In the hands of the King’s Singers, few musical experiences are more moving than a Renaissance madrigal.
Or a folk song like “Greensleeves,” an American gospel song or a piece of pop written by Brian Wilson.
This writer, admittedly more accustomed to the jangle of electric guitars and to jazz saxophones that bite than to brilliant classical harmonies, could come up with nothing better than this banal description following their show here last year.
The King’s Singers, I wrote, “could sing deodorant commercials and make your skin tingle.”
I believe that: I’m convinced that no matter what they sing, the King’s Singers will knock your socks off.
I happen to be partial to their Renaissance madrigals - the crystalline beauty of those pure, small pieces comes ringing through, untouched by 400 years of wars and other human muck - but others are equally rhapsodic over the King’s Singer’s treatment of a Billy Joel pop song.
David Hurley, who sings countertenor for the King’s Singers - that’s the high, high part - says the group’s origins are in the Renaissance music, for that’s the fare of the cathedral and school choirs the members grew up in.
“The earlier music is closer to our hearts and experience and may be the stuff that’s most memorable at the end of a concert,” he said. “But there’s some fantastic romantic music and fantastic contemporary music that’s been commissioned and fantastic pop stuff, too. We look for the things that appear to have timeless qualities.”
Hurley committed himself to choral music at the age of 8. When he was 17, his soprano voice “slid down” into the alto range, and now he sings countertenor in a falsetto.
Formerly, the part of the countertenor was taken by the castrati, and since overcoming his teenage concerns about singing the high parts, Hurley has grown amused by the association.
“I think of the pioneers of the countertenor voice over the years, men like Merle Oberon and Alfred Deller. Alfred Deller was the man who brought the countertenor voice out of the church choir and onto the concert platform as a true solo voice.”
There is a story - perhaps apocryphal - Hurley tells of Deller, who popularized the countertenor voice in the 1950s and ‘60s.
“Alfred Deller was a tall man and a man with a beard. One couple were arguing as to whether whether he had had some type of operation.
“The husband was adamant that (his voice) was natural, but she thought it was the result of some type of operation, although her idea of the kind of operation differed from what other people thought.
“`Surely, he must have had an operation,’ she said, `that’s why he has a beard to cover the scar.”’
The countertenor “is now a sound people are familiar with,” Hurley said, largely because of the popularity of the falsetto voice in popular music.
“The sound of a man singing high is not unknown.”
Think Frankie Vallee, think Beach Boys.
But those voices have very little in common with the unforced, bell-like tones of a pure countertenor, as exemplified by Hurley and his counterpart in the King’s Singers, Nigel Short.
When the King’s Singers appear Tuesday, their program will include a set of American folk songs as arranged by the group’s tenor, Bob Chilcott; songs of the English Renaissance by William Byrd and Thomas Tallis; a piece written on commission for the group by GianCarlo Menotti; a Debussy composition, “Trois chansons de Charles d’Orleans”; and a group of contemporary songs sung under the banner “Arrangements in Close Harmony.”
And whatever you do, don’t mistake these six miracle workers for the King Sisters, King Family Singers or anyone else. They are, simply, the King’s Singers, and that’s a name you shouldn’t forget.
MEMO: This sidebar ran with story: The King’s Singers Location and time: Opera House, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $22.50, $18, $16 adults; $17.50, $13, $11 students
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