Each December, we Washingtonians are spoiled for choice when it comes to holiday concerts. (If you don't believe us, just try to make your way through this monstrous list of excellent Christmas concert recommendations
from classical critic Melinda Bargreen!) But it's especially exciting when something really big is on the season's menu.
One of this year's Big Kahunas? The internationally renowned King's Singers, a six-man vocal group from the United Kingdom. Their infectious vocal arrangements, lively stage presence, and impeccable close harmony has made them a household name among many music lovers. They come to Benaroya Hall on Monday, December 8, with a wonderful collection of holiday music from all over Europe. Miraculously, there are still a few tickets available.
We spoke with three members of the King's Singers this week as they began their American tour in Rexburg, Idaho.
Tell us about what we can expect to hear on this concert.
David Hurley: We begin with some lovely music from the Renaissance by Lassus and Praetorius. Then you'll hear arrangements of some of our favorite European carols, among them a lovely Polish Christmas carol and some beautiful carol anthems by Herbert Howells, who is a bit of a god in the choral world. Then there's something by Poulenc that's a slightly darker piece for a Christmas concert. It was written over Christmas in 1944, and it's about the hardship of life in France during the Second World War. Then we have a set of songs from Catalonia, a Northeastern region of Spain; those are some of my favorites. And as ever, we'll sing a group of everyone's favorite seasonal songs in close harmony, including Jingle Bells.
You sing so many Christmas concerts every year. Do you ever get sick of the music?
Christopher Bruerton: I've been in the group just shy of three years, so I'm one of the newest members. Honestly, the arrangements are so good that you can do them over and over.
What are some of your earliest singing memories? When was that moment when you realized you wanted to sing for a living?
David: Chris and I were both Cathedral choristers from a young age. I remember being a boy chorister in 1971 and falling in love with the Christmas Eve service, and it's just as enchanting as a member of the congregation at home these days. The music just makes the hair on my neck stand up.
Chris: I remember in 1994, I was in the congregation at church, and a solo boy soprano was singing Once in Royal David's City. And the lights came up, the congregation joined in...it was magical. That was the moment for me.
Jonathan Howard: Unlike David and Chris, I was never a boy chorister. My parents, perhaps stupidly, let me listen to whatever I wanted as a kid! So I had them singing along to all the Billboard hits on the radio. It wasn't until I was about 16 and I joined my school choir that I really got involved. But for me, too, it's Christmas music that I really fell in love with first. It's just so, so great.
The King's Singers have traveled all over the world. Tell us about your favorite destinations.
David: For me it's really the venues. Carnegie Hall, the Concertgebouw, Royal Albert Hall here at home. You pinch yourself to make sure you're really standing there. I've been everywhere, and I've enjoyed so many destinations, that it's hard to say what my favorite is. Last year we were in Brazil, Chile, and other parts of South America. That was pretty special. There's nothing quite like being in Italy. There are just too many places to mention.
Johnny: When you speak about the sense of the destination rather than the concert halls...I love places by water, on water, or on a frontier. That's why I'm always so excited to go to Seattle or New Zealand or San Francisco. When you look toward the Pacific Ocean, you just see this vast expanse of water. It's like being on the edge of the world.
Chris: Because I'm from New Zealand, I think being in Europe is so exciting. I've only been living in Oxford for a few years, so the idea of being able to leave home in the morning and get to France by lunchtime is still so exciting to me. I love the cobblestone streets. That's something the others might take for granted, being from here.
You've performed music of so many countries and genres. How has the music you've performed influenced the music you listen to in your free time?
David: I like listening to Symphonic Romantic music. I love jazz. I love the Renaissance. I think for me, I love being reminded of the power of music to move you. You can get so involved in the technicality that you forget that what you do comes from the heart. We did an album called Sacred Bridges with an ensemble called Saraband, and most of the musicians were Turkish. It was so extraordinary not just to listen to the tune but to hear the tuning of these pieces. They have a much more sophisticated sense of tuning. For example, between two half steps in the Western World, they have about ten semitones. It's the same when you listen to Indian music. We like to think that here in the Western world we're so sophisticated, but it's really kind of backward.
What moment in your King's Singers career are you most proud of?
Chris: I remember standing outside Carnegie Hall for the first time in the freezing cold, all decked out in scarves, and looking at a billboard of our concert with a big red "SOLD OUT" sign across the front. That felt really cool.
David: That's funny, because I remember something similar. We were in Washington, D.C., performing at the Kennedy Center. We were with another vocal group from the UK, and one person wanted to get tickets to the [Washington National] Opera, so we walked to the Kennedy Center and saw our concert billboard with the "SOLD OUT" sign. But for me, the true proud moment is always when you come offstage and feel like you've contributed something bigger than the sum of its parts. You allow yourself a little bit of self-congratulation. We just added a new tenor, and when we had performed together with after a while, you really felt us gel together. That is a wonderful feeling.
Johnny: We're lucky in that we've done two concerts at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing. We also did a workshop right in the tourist center of the city, in a cathedral near Tiananmen Square. Because of the separation of church and state there, there's a ban on Western religious music. But we had organized a festival in this church, and they let us go ahead with it. I remember thinking it meant so much that they'd organized this for us.
How often are you at home?
Johnny: We tour seven months of the year, but we're not on the road that whole time. We make sure to take three weeks off at Christmas, three weeks off during Easter, and a six-week holiday in the summer. We spend a total of about five months at home, but it's broken up into small pieces throughout the year. For example, we just had a week off at home, and now we'll be on the road for three weeks on this tour. It's definitely hard sometimes for the members with families. I'm one of the two uncoupled members of the group, so as much as we're already on the road, I'd love to travel even more.
Is there a certain sort of music you haven't performed yet but would love to try?
Chris: I'd certainly like to sing more Scandinavian music. I was introduced to it in when I sang in the National Choirs in New Zealand. I don't hear a lot of it being performed.
Johnny: We're famous for singing music of all ages, from the 12th century to 12 days ago. But we don't do very much uptempo pop music since we don't have a beat-boxer. I'd love to explore more pop music while still keeping that signature King's Singers sound.
David: There's so much repertoire in the existing genres. I love the Renaissance, and there's loads of Renaissance stuff we haven't even touched. Of course we're always open to suggestions! Anyone can feel free to give us suggestions on Facebook or Twitter, and we'll give it serious thought.