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It was a rare seat of Baldwin Auditorium's 700 that was unoccupied; the audience was as pleased to welcome The King's Singers back to the superb acoustics as the group was pleased to return after several years' absence.
The theme was music for Christmas, ranging from Medieval plainsong through contemporary works, sacred and secular. Along with most of the USA, and the popular partridge-in-a-pear-tree carol notwithstanding, Christmas is no longer a 12-day season which begins on the eve of December 25, but rather an ever-earlier season ending on December 25. Therefore, we're inundated with seasonal music before the Thanksgiving holiday, and only the brave continue to schedule any Christmas music to be performed during the twelve days thereof. So it is that concerts of Christmas/holiday music must be scheduled before 12/25. On the other hand, when this brings The King's Singers "across the pond" to share their time-tested product with us, that's a good thing and a benefit, regardless of the date.
While the group's personnel have changed over the decades since their founding in 1968 (before any of today's six singers was born!), the essential singing style has hardly changed. There are still six singers: two countertenors (Patrick Dunachie and Edward Button), a tenor (Julian Gregory), two baritones (Christopher Bruerton and Nick Ashby), and a bass (Jonathan Howard). Howard is the senior member of the current iteration, having joined the group in 2010; two others joined the group in 2019. The singer's bios may be read here.
Dressed in uniform black which let listeners focus on their voices and their faces rather than on holiday costuming, the group began the evening's festivities in procession, singing the Christmas Day plainchant, "Hodie Christus natus est" (Christ is born today), a melody made more famous by its use to open and close Benjamin Britten's celebrated A Ceremony of Carols. The six entered the stage one by one to take their places behind six music stands, the only objects present onstage. As a concertgoer seated behind me remarked to her friend, describing the lure of this group, "There's no staging or anything, just a bunch of guys singing!" And so it was.
In addition to the more familiar carols, the first set's Scandinavian carols inspired by the group's pre-pandemic tour of Denmark were welcome additions to the repertoire. "Julebudet Til Dem, Der Bygge" ("The Christmas Message for Those Who Build") by J.P.E. Hartmann and arranged by Bo Holten was gently and exquisitely sung, as was James Burton's contemporary setting of the traditional "Balulalow" lullaby in the group's next set.
The Singers are always rightly praised for their exemplary close harmony and for their mastery of widely differing choral styles. These qualities were on display as we heard styles ranging from plainsong through gospel, with stops for traditional King's College carol arrangements along the way. While their "Ding! Dong! Merrily on High" was a tad too brisk for the eighth notes of the "Gloria" refrain, "Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day" sparkled superbly, and the choral blend on the quiet sections was a special treat.
A quote from the Singers' program notes explains the significance of the final set of pieces in the program's first half:
"For a long time, we have been fascinated to witness the power that music has to unite people; this could not be truer than at Christmastime…From the "Singing Revolution" in Estonia we have "Heliseb Valjadel." From Martin Luther King's movement for civil rights in America, we have a beautiful new arrangement of "If I Can Help Somebody" by Stacey V Gibbs (b. 1962). And from the heart and soul of Mexico…our new arrangement of..."Cielito Lindo." The first half of the program finishes with a song whose words could not express the spirit of the season more perfectly: 'All the folk we love are here: Yuletide brings us all together this time of year.' It was written by Mel Tormé (1925-1999) and it's called 'The Christmas Song.'" Highlights from this set included the tight gospel harmonies of "If I Can Help Somebody," and the Gregory/Bruerton duet in "Cielito Lindo."
The concert's second half, like the first, began with a plainsong procession, this time with a single singer standing at a rear corner of the stage as the others entered one by one. Four traditional carols followed. The first was the French carol, "Quelle Est Cette Odeur Agréable?" ("What is this pleasant fragrance?"), arranged by Henry Hawkesworth, a former King's College choral scholar born in 1991. This tune, which I first knew in its 1728 garb as a drinking song from The Beggars' Opera arranged for men's chorus, proves ever-adaptable in Hawkesworth's more adventurous harmonic intimacy. A recent setting by Bruerton of Vaughan Williams' "Wither's Rocking Hymn" should be sung often, as Bruerton's mastery of choral arranging shows just how much he has absorbed from the large repertoire of KS works which he has sung.
Perhaps the most imaginative of the carol settings we heard was Geoffrey Keating's arrangement of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" (the printed program omitted the comma). Taking his cue from Dave Brubeck's famous "Take Five," Keating transforms the four-square rhythm of this carol into a (mostly) five-beats-to-a-bar swing. This produced the kind of rhythmic interplay in which The King's Singers excel. Their performance was scintillating, although their pronunciation of "comfort" as "comfert" suggested that their time in the USA has had an effect.
The final section, announced from the stage, brought more secular tunes to the fore, which, along with a pair of encores (including one from A Charlie Brown Christmas), kept the mood light and took advantage of the season's need for frivolity!
All in all, it was an evening of widely ranging music both seasonal and unifying, full of nostalgia and intriguing new music to want to hear again. There was close harmony, intoxicating rhythms, and a gentle "Silent Night," sung in its original German. The King's Singers featured "no staging or anything, just a bunch of guys singing," and they did it so well. Thanks to Duke Performances for bringing the King's Singers back to campus; please do it again soon.