Duke Performances has presented more than its shares of phenomenal big-name artists, but even by that high standard, the appearance of The King's Singers at the newly renovated Baldwin Auditorium on Duke University's east campus was truly a royal occasion. This indisputable zenith of a cappella groups last appeared at Duke in 2005, at the reverb rich, cavernous Duke Chapel, so it was indeed a special treat to hear these magnificent English gents in an intimate, acoustically balanced space. I can say with complete confidence that everyone's justifiably extremely high expectations were surpassed.
The King's Singers, now in their forty-seventh consecutive year of existence, began as a very high-minded British ensemble specializing in the rich repertory of English madrigals, lute songs and folk songs. Over the years, although many fans still embrace this as their greatest niche, this remarkably versatile ensemble has expanded their range to every conceivable classical vocal genre, as well as popular, jazz, and most recently, an exploration of what is often referred to as "the great American songbook." Their concerts are usually a potpourri of these disparate styles, and tonight's performance was a perfectly programmed example of "a little something for everyone."
Obviously, a group that has been around as long as The King's Singers have – plus the toll taken on the human vocal chords – will have had significant personnel changes. There have been twenty-two members over the years, but always six singers in the group at any time. The current lineup that performed at Baldwin consisted of David Hurley and Timothy Wayne-Wright, countertenors, Paul Phoenix, tenor, Christopher Bruerton and Christopher Gabbitas, baritones, and Jonathan Howard, bass.
The six men in plain black suits strode out onto a stage with nothing but six identical black music stands, and no water bottles! They launched right into Thomas Morley's "Hard by a crystal fountain" from The Triumphs of Oriana. This was classic high Elizabethan music that harkens back to the group's raison d'etre. This gladdened the heart of those who feared that perhaps this greatest of vocal groups had sold out and completely "gone pop." Next up was a representative work from another madrigal collection, Il Trionfo di Dori, by the Italian Giovanni Croce. "Ove tra l'herbe e flori," somewhat a companion piece to the previous Morley, was unusual in that it was the only work of the entire evening that had reduced forces, as both countertenors sat, or more accurately, stood, this one out.
It is not necessarily a given that musicians of this exalted caliber and fame will always deliver a performance whose deserved reputation precedes them. As mentioned before, this one far surpassed even those lofty expectations. I am far from an expert on the technique and mechanics of singing, but these six men, individually and collectively, came as close as humanly possible to produce the cliché of "heavenly music of the spheres." It would be insulting to even mention the word "intonation" since pristine perfection requires no further clarification. Their blending of even basic major triads was so profound that it seemed to elicit sympathetic vibrations that, without getting too "new agey," some say is the essence of everything in the universe. One of the sources of their remarkable sound, I believe, is a general concept that the group lived and sung by since their inception: vibrato is to be used just as a color or effect, it is not a default setting. Are you listening, 90% of opera singers?
The first half can best be described by the title of one of their greatest early LPs (look it up kids) and BBC series, "Madrigal History Tour." Although not confined to madrigals, The King's Singers toured Europe across four centuries. From a Saltarelle by Camille Saint-Saëns to a rarely heard mini-cantata, Un soir de neige, by fellow Frenchman François Poulenc, the men also displayed their impeccable diction in several languages. During intros to some of the selections by several of the singers, they sounded, well, quite British – and somewhat pedantic. That quickly changed as bass Jonathan Howard introduced the alleged last piece of the first half. He initially presented it as if they were omitting two scheduled, monumental works, "Quando dal terzo cielo" by Palestrina and "As Vesta was descending" by Thomas Weelkes. You could sense the disappointed murmuring spreading throughout the theater, and then Howard, with a sly smile, indicated that those would be performed before "Leon" by Joby Talbot (b.1971). From the ethereal pure beauty of Palestrina, to the surprisingly daring harmonies of Weelkes, and finally a modern masterpiece depicting a Catholic pilgrimage, this mini-set, by itself, would have been worth the price of admission.
Without sacrificing in the slightest their remarkable musicianship and singing chops, the second half was all fun and showbiz. Singing more than 120 concerts a year, from Carolina to China, The King's Singers know not to shy away from the fact that this is entertainment. They began with a work called Nonsense by the Italian Goffredo Petrassi (1904-2003). This is a set of five comical limericks where the guys showed us their humorous side as well as many interesting vocal effects.
Most touring artists – of any genre – tend to feature their latest recording, and The King's Singers are no different. The remainder of the concert and their three encores featured works from their new double CD, the Great American Songbook. Here, they let down their hair, so to speak, and even poked fun at themselves in Cole Porter's classic "Let's Misbehave," playing into the stereotype of the staid, proper Englishman. They also sang Harold Arlen's "Get Happy," George Gershwin's "Our Love is Here to Stay," and Jerome Kern's "I Won't Dance." These songs are mini-masterpieces, and of course The King's Singers are impeccable, so the arrangement is the missing variable in all of these. The above were quite creative and filled with lovely and surprising jazz harmonies. Less successful, in that realm, were a bossa nova version of "I've Got You Under My Skin" and a syrupy take on the Etta James mega-hit "At Last."
Unfortunately, the fun had to end sometime and their third and final encore cleverly was Cole Porter's gorgeous, wistful "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye." On the final word "goodbye" we did our best to treasure that rapturous sound.