Review: King’s Singers take an around-the-world musical tour at Spivey Hall concert

The King's Singers are now on their third incarnation. (Photo by Axel Nickolaus)
The King's Singers are now on their third incarnation. (Photo by Axel Nickolaus)
The King's Singers are now on their third incarnation. (Photo by Axel Nickolaus)
The King’s Singers are now on their third incarnation. (Photo by Axel Nickolaus)

On Sunday afternoon the British male vocal sextet The King’s Singers performed a concert at Spivey Hall that concluded their most recent three-and-a-half week tour of the United States. They headed directly back to England on a late flight the same night.

The tour program, entitled Postcards, took its moniker from the group’s 2014 CD of the same name — 22 tracks of arrangements of popular and folk songs from around the world assembled from decades of the group’s collected repertoire. The music on the CD represents almost as many countries as there are tracks: Canada, France, Korea, New Zealand, England, Italy, Finland, Australia, Ecuador, Brazil, Germany, Ireland, Scotland, Denmark, Andalusia (Spain), Mexico, China, Wales, South Africa, the United States and Hungary; only Germany is represented more than once.

While Sunday’s performance drew significantly upon those works, happily it did not merely emulate the CD. 

The concert opened with a serious work, “Horizons,” by Péter Louis van Dijk, a Dutch-born South African composer who created both words and music. The work was written for The King’s Singers in 1995 for their South African tour of that year. It was inspired by a colonial-era San (Bushman) cave painting of a ship that brought Europeans, whom they viewed as “gods,” but who would come to cause of the near-extinction of the San people in South Africa through both slaughter and the introduction of new diseases. The work had a mostly haunting, subdued quality that powerfully reflected well the work’s ultimately tragic story.

The remainder of the first half was divided into geographical sections: North America, Europe, Asia, Britain and South America, each with two applicable selections drawn from the Postcards CD. However, in between each section came single movements drawn, in order, from “River’s Lament” by Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin, a piece The King’s Singers commissioned in 2011. Its four movements, all settings of poems by Charles Anthony Silvestri, Kats-Chernin describes the life cycle of a river.

Despite effective vocal writing, the whole of its 16 minutes seemed a little stiff and stilted. The splitting-up of the work also negatively affected the continuity of its conceptual arch. The second movement, which portrayed daily river life, and the anxious waltzing of the fourth were the higher points among them — though not quite high enough when disbursed among the lighter, more familiar popular and folk song arrangements that enwrapped them.

Following intermission came a shorter close harmony set primarily drawn from American Songbook standards like Arlen and Koehler’s “Get Happy” and the Gershwin brothers’ “Our Love is Here to Stay.” There were a few exceptions, such as a couple of African-American spirituals and a pair of introverted contemporary pop songs: Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes” and Paul Simon’s supplicative “Some People’s Lives Roll Easy” which took well to The King’s Singers’ penchant for smooth-voiced close harmonies.

There were two encores, the first being a “Happy Birthday To You” in honor of Spivey Hall’s 25th anniversary season, followed by Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.”

Small vocal ensembles rise and fall with the chemistry between the singers, and over time a group will change members or close up shop. The King’s Singers has had 24 different members since it was established in 1968. The last of its founding members, Alistair Hume and Simon Carrington, retired in 1993 after a quarter century, marking the end of what one might call the “first generation” of King’s Singers.

This concert was long-time countertenor David Hurley’s final performance at Spivey Hall as a King’s Singer. Hurley joined The King’s Singers in 1990, before Hume and Carrington left. As the last remaining King’s Singer to have sung with them, his own retirement marks the closure of the group’s “second generation,” leaving the next chapter fully in the hands and voices of the next one.

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