Baritone Christopher Gabbitas, senior member of the King’s Singers, says that they are each deeply immersed in the art of listening: “It’s a good lesson for everyone to learn, for how much better would the world be if we all listened more?” To be successful in any chamber ensemble, he continues, egos must be left offstage. “We sing for each other; we think vertically within a score, and we learn to work together in a more positive way in order to achieve a group sound that is far greater than anything we would ever produce as six individual soloists. That is our raison d’etre and is one of the most satisfying experiences it’s possible to have.”
Originally, “a cappella” denoted sacred music performed in a chapel by unaccompanied voices. As centuries passed, delineations between sacred and secular became less distinct. The King’s Singers, formed in the 1960s as the Choral Scholars of King’s College, Cambridge, have since evolved into an internationally popular a cappella unit without boundaries.
When they bring their Christmas Songbook show to Hill Auditorium on December 10, the Singers will demonstrate their mastery of everything from medieval motets to mainstream pop.
The motet will be a carol scored in the sixteenth century by Orlande de Lassus. They’ll also sing “There Is No Rose of Such Virtue,” an early exercise in Christian mysticism in which the womb is described as sacred space where heaven and earth are conjoined. That text has been set or performed by a range of musicians nearly as diverse as the King’s Singers’ repertoire–from Benjamin Britten to Chanticleer and Sting.
Also on the early, traditional part of the program are Tchaikovsky’s “Crown of Roses,” Gustav Holst’s setting of Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter,” and “Shchedryk,” known in English as “Carol of the Bells.” This instantly recognizable melody was written in 1904 by Mykola Leontovych, a Ukrainian composer, educator, and chorus master later assassinated by the Soviets. And they will sing contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Paert’s “Mother of God and Virgin” (“Bogoroditsye Dveyo”)–in Church Slavonic. Interspersed among the melodies will be readings from Rossetti, Sir John Betjeman, and the WWI “Diary of an Unknown Soldier.”
After intermission, the King’s Singers will shift gears with conventional Christmas tunes that everyone knows backwards and forwards, like “Winter Wonderland,” Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride,” and Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” A reading of Ogden Nash’s cleverly rhymed cautionary poem “The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Claus” will lead into “The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot,” a song popularized during WWII by English vocalist Vera Lynn; her recording was later used in the opening sequence of Pink Floyd’s movie The Wall.
While some listeners prefer the King’s Singers’ soaring spiritual harmonies and highly refined handling of medieval, Renaissance, classical, and modern chamber repertoire, the group’s dynamic versatility is admirable and at times dazzling. Closing their concert with sugar-coated holiday pop is sure to provide their audience with what it wants–and perhaps needs.