The King’s Singers bring Christmas warmth to a chilly Florida night

By Lawrence Budmen

On a bitterly cold South Florida night, The King’s Singers spread warmth and holiday cheer Monday at the Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale, presented by the Broward Center Classical Series.

It is difficult to believe that this a capella male sextet has existed for more than four decades with over one hundred recordings in its discography. (The most recent Simple Gifts was a 2009 Grammy winner.) None of the original members remain with the group, yet the current roster preserves the singers’ unique tonal blend and wry sense of distinctively British humor. Indeed, vocal students could learn much from the group’s spot-on intonation and immaculate diction, which are models of superb technique and high performance standards.

These six vocalists are such great entertainers that it is easy to overlook their artistry. The group’s absolute vocal control, impeccable musicianship and brightly polished articulation are the essence of wonderful singing.

To the delight of a large audience, the sextet mixed innovative arrangements of yuletide favorites with readings of author’s thoughts on the holiday. While Christina Rossetti’s Christmas Eve proved to be sentimental treacle, Charles Causley’s Ballad of the Breadman was a powerful re-imagining of Jesus’ birth, life and death in a twentieth century military dictatorship. Christmas Eve 1915 came from the letters of a British military officer, describing the sudden, unofficial holiday truce between English and German soldiers at the height of World War I.

Countertenors David Hurley and Timothy Wayne-Wright form the group’s musical centerpiece, their ethereal tones and elegant vocal gymnastics  responsible for the Singers’ distinctive sound and blend. (The original roster featured two countertenors, long before the Baroque revival and the emergence of such stars as David Daniels.) Baritone Phillip Lawson adds mellow depth to the group’s low register and arranges much of their repertoire. His lovely quartet version of Novel nouvelet was a mellow French serenade, all soft dynamics and gleaming song. British film composer Carl Davis’ arrangement of Rise Up Shepherd and Follow offered a stirring anthem, delivered with stentorian ring. Former King’s Singer Bob Chilcott’s lilting version of What child is this? exuded refreshingly light, unpretentious fun.

Tchaikovsky’s Crown of Roses proved deeply moving, a solemn Russian Orthodox carol. The high voices (including tenor Paul Phoenix) absolutely glowed in Bach’s exquisite harmonization of O little sweet one. Lawson’s own Lullay my liking was a tender lullaby, sung in falsetto. John Rutter’s masterful arrangement of the original German Stille Nacht was admirably restrained, a soft reverie that displayed the group at its best.

Rutter’s pop-infused There is a flower was haunting, an intoxicating melody spun in magical vocal cadences. One of today’s most prominent choral composers and conductors, Rutter is also a worthy successor to such former British cross-over writers as Eric Coates in sheer melodic abundance. Lawson’s modernist take on Joy to the World a la Stravinsky and Carl Orff added some high voltage sparks to a seasonal evergreen. The arrangement was also a vivid demonstration of the singers’ vocal range and virtuosity.

Saint-Saens’ Serenade d’Hiver proved an unexpectedly witty parody of the Gallic operatic chorale, sung with tongue-in-cheek insouciance. Lawson, baritone Christopher Gabbitas and bass Jonathan Howard (the ensemble’s newest member) added vocal percussion to a delightfully rhythmic version of The Little Drummer Boy. John Davis’ You Are A New Day, the sextet’s signature anthem, was appropriately stirring, now vocalized with a softer edge.

One aspect of The King’s Singers’ artistic agenda that this Christmas program did not present was the ensemble’s dedication to contemporary music. The sextet lists such icons as Luciano Berio, Gyorgy Ligeti, Gian Carlo Menotti, Krzysztof Penderecki. Ned Rorem and choral specialists John Rutter, John Tavener and Eric Whitacre among the composers it has commissioned. For all their high showbiz glitz, these are inquisitive and visionary artists. One hopes a future concert will present a greater cross section of their wide ranging repertoire.

For encores, a version of Deck the Halls that seemed to mock rock bands and gay males seemed in questionable taste, but a high, syncopated Jingle Bells was a total delight, concluding the chilly evening with a true sense of joy.

Posted in Performances

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Tue Dec 14, 2010
at 9:29 am
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