The British are coming! The British are coming (well, already came) to Durham: the King’s Singers performing in a sold out Baldwin Auditorium is very much my kind of British invasion. The Duke Performance series presents a range of local and international artists, and this concert featured one of the more popular ensembles of the year. The King’s Singers boast a couple of Grammys and a tour schedule that has them frequently bouncing between continents. Local NC audiences bought every ticket and turned up starry-eyed in King’s Singers t-shirts and big grins. The excited audience made for an energized concert experience, and the visitors certainly proved worthy of the high expectations.

The King’s Singers offer a genuine focus on their audience that is rare in the world of classical music. As the ensemble shifts seamlessly between German folk songs, American pop, or sixteenth-century mass settings, their flawless diction, sensitive timing, and (very British) presentational flair remain the same. This ensemble has been programming themed concerts of late, and the current collection of sixteen old and new ecclesiastical works based on the structure and text of the Lord’s Prayer makes for some effective programming. The audience was asked to hold their applause, creating a wonderful 45-minute, deeply meditative experience of sacred music spanning centuries, languages, and continents.

The ensemble took a few moments to settle in, so William Byrd’s “Haec Dies,” with its constant points of imitation and energetic movement, was the first truly inspiring selection.  The warm, embracing harmonies of two different settings of “The Lord’s Prayer” by Maurice Duruflé and John Tavener also made for program highlights. A piece by lesser-known composer Cyrillus Kreeks, his “Õnnis on inimene,” drew focus to the King’s Singers’ attention to detail. The subtle changes in approaches to consonants, breath, and pauses illustrated the music beautifully. Additionally, Orlandus Lassus’ “Ad Te Levavi” – a wonderful piece – showed off dynamic swells and changes in texture.

The real stars of the program were, somewhat unexpectedly, the inner voices. Julian Gregory, tenor, joined the ensemble in 2014, and Christopher Bruerton, baritone, in 2012. These two newcomers (compared to David Hurley‘s quarter century with the ensemble) shifted in and out of the overall texture, emerging to highlight special moments and receding back into the blend again with exquisite taste.

The second half of the program felt like coffee hour in the fellowship hall after church featuring favorites from the King’s Singer’s recent and upcoming albums as well as trademark tunes.

The Great American Songbook provided inspiration for several numbers, including “I’ve Got the World on a String” by Harold Arlen, “Our Love is Here to Stay” by George Gershwin, and “Night and Day” by Cole Porter. All showcased the trademark tight harmonies, dramatic phrasing, and sudden shifts in style that this ensemble is known for. Several international melodies followed the American selections, drawing – like the group’s 2014 album – from the concept of musical Postcards from different times and places. The ensemble really seemed to come into their own showcasing rapid-fire diction, comedic timing, and lush harmonies, and the audience demanded three encore numbers. Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes,” the German folksong “Mein kleiner grüner Kaktus” (My Little Green Cactus), and Daryl Runswick’s “Alice in Wonderland” made for an eclectic and unexpected set of encores.

The Duke Performance Series continues with the Ciompi Concert on November 22, and several diverse offerings in December.  As always, see our calendar for details.