The King's Singers, some of the greatest interpreters of a cappella choral music of our time, performed a stunning program of Christmas music to a sold-out audience at the Tryon Fine Arts Center. The event was one of the highlights of the Tryon Concert Association's 60th anniversary concert season. The ensemble's program included carols for Advent, a set of works either written or arranged by British composers, a cantata by Francis Poulenc, a set of Christmas songs in Catalan and Spanish, and a set of carols in close harmony. The intimacy of the hall seemed to be the perfect setting in which to hear this renowned group.
The male sextet consists of countertenors David Hurley and Timothy Wayne-Wright, tenor Julian Gregory, baritones Christopher Bruerton and Christopher Gabbitas, and bass Jonathan Howard. None is a founding member, but they've continued the style of early music singing which was a revelation when the group first formed in the 60s – singing in straight, pure tones while using vibrato as color and ornament. Their concentration on nuance, exquisitely calibrated to the inner workings of each part and the harmony of the whole, draws an audience to them in rapt attention. Every chord, every phrase is a work of the highest artistry. Their programming included works in six languages, and while it was primarily joyous, some works underscored the somber themes of Christ's coming sacrifice and the remembrance of the battles of the world wars.
The Advent carols opened with Lassus's "Resonent in laudibus," a five-part motet of changing textures based on the 15th century German tune "Joseph lieber, Joseph mein." The ensemble reduced to four members for three verses of Praetorius's "Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen." John Rutter's arrangement of "In dulci jubilo" followed, with Praetorius's duet setting of "Wie schön leuchtet." Ending the set was Sweelinck's melismatic and ebullient "Hodie Christus natus est."
Herbert Howells (1892-1983), a favorite British composer of the group, was represented by three carol anthems. "Here is the little door" was so expressively sung about the gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh – "gifts for His children, terrible and sweet" – and was one of the concert's high points. "A spotless rose" undulated in beautiful waves of parallel motion among the parts, and "Sing Lullaby" was noteworthy for its undercurrent of pulsing oscillations on "lullaby" and its broad sections of homophonic declamations in shifting chordal shadings. Other works in this section were Jim Clements's "Gabriel's message," John Rutter's "There is a flower," and "Mary's Lullaby," arranged around the traditional "Lully, lullay" tune by baritone Christopher Gabbitas.
The logic behind the inclusion of the Poulenc cantata "Un soir de neige" was not readily apparent to me until the group explained its history. This cantata of four brief movements was composed during the Nazi occupation of France during WWII to a text by Paul Éluard (Eugene Grindel) while the poet was serving with the French resistance. While the words are ostensibly about the harshness of winter, and "wood ruined, woods robbed by the ravages of winter," they speak to the tribulations of war, a theme that resonated later in the concert. The music is stark, dissonant, and a strangely beautiful accompaniment to the terrible words. The third movement "Bois meurtri" (Woods ruined) was the most moving in its dramatic impact.
Following intermission came the set of delightful Christmas songs from Iberia: "La Filadora" and "Claro abril resplandeció" in Catalan, and "El niño querido" and "Villancico catalan," sung in Spanish. Then the music stands were set aside and the ensemble launched into the familiar, highly syncopated "Gaudete, gaudete! Christus est Natus" carol (published in 1582). Their carols in "close harmony" were "The Little Drummer Boy," humorous with its increasingly busy drumming section, and a laid back "Take Five"-infused "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." As a remembrance of the 100th anniversary of the Christmas truce between British and German soldiers during WWI, they sang what the soldiers had then sung, "Stille Nacht." Changing the mood once again, they ended with two novelty numbers (though exquisitely understated in the best British fashion) "Jingle Bells" and "Deck the Halls." The audience responded with an enthusiastic and lingering standing ovation for this most memorable concert.
Note: The Singers' US tour continues in New York (12/16), Lincoln, NE (12/18), Manhattan, KS (12/20), Kansas City, MO (12/20), and Washington, DC (12/21). For details, click here.