Some of the King's Men 

English sextet comes to Vanderbilt

English sextet comes to Vanderbilt

Six Englishmen known as The King’s Singers are coming to Vanderbilt’s Langford Auditorium next Wednesday, Jan. 28, and they’re worth missing a prayer meeting and choir practice for. These half-dozen men sing consistently at a very rare level of performance—perfectly tuned, at one in tone, rhythm, and nuance. In technical competence, only a handful of other ensembles can claim to be their peers. Having only six voices to keep together may make it easier for each to hear all the others, but with so few voices, everybody is exposed: It’s much harder to pretend that it was the other guy who did the wrong thing.

Performance ability aside, The King’s Singers are just as noteworthy for their wide range of material. One admirer has claimed that they sing the broadest and most diverse repertory of any international singing group. Two fairly recent additions to the group’s extensive discography are to the point. In 1994 they recorded a CD entitled English Renaissance: Byrd and Tallis, William Byrd and Thomas Tallis being 16th-century composers of some of the loveliest and most difficult “classical” music in the world. And in 1991 the Singers recorded Good Vibrations, a collection including songs by Brian Wilson, Paul Simon, Phil Collins, Billy Joel, Don McLean, James Taylor, and Ray Stevens. They have also recorded Josquin Desprez (a generation older than Byrd and Tallis), German lieder, and Gilbert and Sullivan, as well as compositions that they have themselves commissioned. And their repertory is indeed international. They sing (of course) in Latin, but also in French, German, Italian, and Spanish, as well as in several varieties of English.

And they’ve been doing it for 30 years. The group was founded in 1968 at King’s College, Cambridge, renowned for its all-male choir consisting (by 15th-century royal decree) of 16 boys and 14 men trained to sing high-church services in the college’s famous chapel. The men choristers there have often been boy choristers there, and the boys, chosen through auditions for a special boarding/singing school, are members of a club as elite as the NBA.

Of the original six King’s Singers, five had been choristers at King’s—whence the name. (The sixth was an Oxonian.) There have been surprisingly few changes of personnel since. Of the present group, one joined in 1990, another in 1994, another in 1997, but it takes a real aficionado to hear any difference in their sound, much less any decline.

Whatever they sing, in whatever style, they sing with astonishing skill. Most musicians specialize in one kind of music—a question, surely, of preference. If you like Kathleen Battle, you may not like Patsy Cline. But more and more classical ensembles, including our own Nashville Symphony Orchestra, are widening the scope of their programming in the hope of drawing a larger audience. The risk is, when a group tries to expand its programming, the different styles may muddy one another, the level of performance may decline, and the group may end up losing the very audience it was trying to build.

All of which is to say, there’s the far more important question of technique. To sing like Patsy Cline or Merle Haggard, or Ella Fitzgerald or Ray Charles, and not sound phony is as hard as learning to speak French with a perfect accent. It takes disciplined talent to become a good “classical” musician; it takes maybe even more talent to adapt that “classical” technique to other styles of performance without sounding phony—and without unhinging your hard-earned chops. That’s what makes The King’s Singers arguably unique among vocal ensembles—they’re able to do very diverse music at a consistently superb performance level.

The group’s lead voice is a counter-tenor (male soprano) with the range of Mariah Carey, the accurate power of Leontyne Price, and a uniquely masculine quality of sound. If a female soprano is a flute, a counter-tenor is a recorder. The voice is technically a falsetto, but there is nothing false about it.

Sometimes this group’s music is funny, sometimes it is sublime—usually on the same program. For The King’s Singers, good music is good music, no matter where it comes from, so long as it is done the way that kind of music ought to be done. They don’t give us Paul Simon’s sound; they give us Paul Simon’s kind of sound—taking some hints from Ward Swingle and the Four Freshmen.

As befits a group fully ensconced in the here and now, the Singers have a site on the World Wide Web, established and maintained by DJ Records in Oregon. But you can also find on the Web several good sites maintained by individual fans doing it for love. Like the Grateful Dead, the King’s Singers have a devoted following. Deservedly. Those who know the Singers will want to hear them again. Those who don’t might want to lend them an ear.

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