Ardor in the cathedral: The King's Singers

The King's Singers

Valentine’s Day may have come and gone, but love will still be in the air when The King’s Singers perform at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis on Saturday, Feb. 21. The a cappella sextet’s program is based on their 2019 CD, Love Songs, and supplemented with a set of Renaissance madrigals by Clément Janequin and Orlando di Lasso, as well as songs by Johannes Brahms, Edward Elgar, and Jean Sibelius, all addressing various aspects of love.

The ensemble’s name and appearance — six young men wearing identical suits — may suggest an austere, intellectual approach to what they do, but nothing could be further from reality. They bring high musical standards to wide-ranging programs that are joyously performed, with a special focus on putting the audience at ease.

The King’s Singers produce an immediately recognizable sound, characterized by the tonal purity of a boys’ choir, with its absence of vibrato, combined with spot-on intonation. It’s a legacy of Sir David Willcocks, the legendary director of music at King’s College, Cambridge, with whom many of the group studied. Their expansive repertory and affable stage personae reflect Germany’s influential Comedian Harmonists, and their vocal virtuosity was inspired by the American vocal jazz group The Hi-Los.

Many vocalists put the heavy-duty repertory up front and save lighter pieces for the end of a program, but the King’s Singers take the opposite tack. In Santa Fe, they’ll open with Harold Arlen’s “It’s a New World,” first sung by Judy Garland in the 1954 film A Star Is Born, followed by traditional folk songs and music by Simon and Garfunkel (“April Come She Will”) and Randy Newman (“When She Loved Me,” performed by Sarah McLachlan in Toy Story 2). Only then does the group move into classical territory.

Brahms’ “Vineta” is a very early song about an ancient, submerged “miracle city” and the sailor who keeps returning to it. “Deep in My Soul” is Elgar’s setting of a text from Lord Byron’s The Corsair. The composer dedicated it to an American woman, Julia Worthington, and some commentators believe the two had more than a platonic relationship. Matters get much more explicit with one of the madrigals, di Lasso’s “Chi chilichi?” which concludes the concert’s first half with its infamous description of a couple in bed arguing about whether to make love, accompanied by cocks crowing and bagpipes wheezing.

Sextet member Patrick Dunachie is particularly enthusiastic about the concert’s post-intermission pairing of two Finnish works. “The last one, Sibelius’ song cycle Rakastava, is quite weighty and emotionally deep,” he says. “It’s also the longest piece on the program. The first is a nice foil to it, because it’s a lyrical and whimsical folk song called ‘Tuoll’ on Mun Kultani,’ which means ‘Tuoll is my sweetheart.’ I don’t know if the Finns are unusually amorous, but the winters are awfully long.”

The group’s roots go back to 1965, when six choral students attending King’s College in Cambridge, England, came together to perform under the Monty Python-esque moniker Schola Cantorum Pro Musica Profana in Cantabridgiense. Three years later, after some personnel changes and a bit of rebranding, they emerged as The King’s Singers, making their concert debut at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on May 1, 1968. They were already in the very best of company, in a program conducted by Sir Neville Marriner with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, organist Simon Preston, and horn player Barry Tuckwell.

With an average individual tenure of more than 11 years, there’s been a grand total of just 28 members in the sextet’s long history. David Hurley, Dunachie’s predecessor, had the longest stint at 26 years. Dunachie credits much of the group’s longevity and stability to its unique audition process. “It’s utterly thrilling,” he says. “You don’t apply; you get head-hunted. The guys in the group submit recommendations, and I got a call asking if I’d like to audition. I was age 21 at that point, so it was like singing for my heroes.

“It’s not like most auditions, because you don’t sing for the group. You sing with the group,” he says. “They heard about 30 candidates when I got in, and each of us sang onstage for 20 minutes with them. I’ve now seen what it’s like from the other side, since two new guys have come on since I joined.” Vocal proficiency is a must, of course, but the members are also looking to hear whether a candidate’s voice can blend with their signature sound in all the different types of music they perform.

The King’s Singers are on the road for more than six months every year, giving an average of 110 concerts, so a love of travel is also essential, as is being a good travel companion. “We’re looking for people we can enjoy being with at 6 a.m. on the way to the airport as much as we liked being onstage with them the previous night,” Dunachie says.

Making direct connections with attendees is a very important part of the group’s culture. So candidates are screened to see iwhether they’d be comfortable speaking to a large audience (a trait not always present in musicians) and to individuals after a performance. “We’ll talk to people for as long as they want to stay,” Dunachie says, “and we’ll sign anything they want to have signed.” Lots and lots of selfies with patrons are also part of the job description, needless to say.

The current King’s Singers’ roster consists of countertenors Dunachie and Edward Button, tenor Julian Gregory, baritones Christopher Bruerton and Nick Ashby, and bass Jonathan Howard. It’s a distribution of voice types that’s been utilized consistently since the group’s founding, and its larger-than-usual number of low voices provides the bedrock sound that’s also one of the group’s famous traits.

For first-time attendees, it’s almost always the singing of the countertenors — grown men who sing in the soprano and alto range using a technique called falsetto — that’s most surprising. “It is slightly weird — beautiful, haunting, and ethereal with an otherworldly quality,” Dunachie says. “But any man can make that sound.” The countertenor especially enjoys the moment people first hear him speak during a concert, since his natural voice is that of a low bass.

As part of its recently concluded 50th anniversary year, the group started to think more broadly about how its work could actively shape the future. Launching The King’s Singers Global Foundation was one important result. The nonprofit’s mission is “to champion music as a way to find musical and social harmony in the world today [and] to celebrate what unites us rather than focus on those things that divide us.”

The foundation’s activities include providing direct support to groups with similar goals; commissioning new music drawn from traditions that are typically overlooked; and expanding the group’s training programs for young singers and music educators. The group’s newest CD, Finding Harmony, also reflects this endeavor in its repertory of songs that have led to social action and to healing around the world. ◀

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