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Fit for Royalty

December 13, 2003

King's Singers

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By Kip Cranna

The King's Singers brought a refined and superlative Christmas concert to Herbst Theater on Saturday, the eighth visit of this renowned British a cappella sextet since they first appeared here in 1989. Although the group's membership has almost entirely changed in the intervening years, the ensemble's meticulous craftsmanship remains its major asset. Artistic continuity in fact seems to one of the King's Singers abiding strengths, as evidenced by the fact that, since their founding in 1968, they have had only 18 members. Clad rather like parsons, all in black but minus the clerical collars, the six gents performed with casual grace and aplomb.

It's a pity that their elegant finesse has to suffer amidst the dull and unforgiving acoustics at Herbst, where nary an ounce of reverberation lingered to sweeten their sound and lend ease to their effort. For singers who, to a man, got their start in the resounding environments of English cathedral choirs, this must make their San Francisco visits a bit of a grind.

Nonetheless their program was a treat, beginning with “Veni, Veni Emmanuel,” piquantly harmonized in an arrangement by baritone Philip Lawson and performed with extraordinarily subtle dynamic shadings. The medieval carol “Angelus ad Virginem,” for the three lowest voices, gave ample proof that these singers are not afraid to employ a nasally pointed head tone to proper effect, making the austere open fifths and rough harmonies truly growl. Tenor Paul Phoenix proved to be the lynchpin in much of their Early Music offerings, with a lean and dry yet dulcet tone. The upper voices were featured in “There is No Rose,” sung so magically leggerissimo as to be almost unvocalized.

Two from the Master

The well-known “In Dulci Jubilo,” in J. S. Bach's harmonization, featured bright and brash vowels and precise coordination. Another J. S. Bach work, “O Little One, Sleep,” illustrated the group's ability to think and breathe as one, with careful balance for every chord. Such singing can become overly precious when not adequately tempered with plenty of personality, as was mostly the case here.

Lawson charmed us with a stagey reading from Thomas Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree, about a group of carol singers in the English countryside, whose cold winter night is enlivened by a pretty girl's face in the window. “Maria durch ein Dornwald ging,” a traditional German carol in another Lawson arrangement, featured a strong contribution by the young baritone Gabriel Crouch, and was marked by fastidiously tapered sound at the cadences. Lawson's version of the French carol “No”l Nouvelet” was intriguing, with a free-floating alto part enjoying a moment of pseudo scat-singing. Crouch and his bass colleague Stephen Connolly sang with an effectively edgy sound.

“Bogoroditsye Dyevo” (Virgin Mother of God), a Russian carol set by the modern Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, uses rapid-fire chattering at machine-gun pace, offset by ringing chords in a dazzling piece that was over far too soon.

A rather unnecessary reading of the poet William Blake's “Cradle Song” from his Songs of Innocence and Experience was followed by a setting of his famous “The Lamb” by British composer John Tavener, characteristically ethereal but in this performance sounding brittle and a little under-nourished. The famous Coventry Carol — about King Herod's “Slaughter of the Innocents” — was performed in its original 16th-century version for three voices. I've never heard it done with such telling emphasis on the biting dissonance built into “Bye, bye, lully lullay.” A companion piece about King Herod by the Danish composer Bo Holten (b. 1948) was ingeniously crafted, with a dark and thorny quotation from the Coventry Carol underlying a Latin hymn. The singers ended it with a sudden, finely wrought unison, wispy but secure and quite amazing.

One ringer

A departure from the evening's Christmas fare came with Poulenc's “Un Soir de Neige” (A Night of Snow), settings of four bleak and surreal texts by the poet Paul Eluard about a French resistance fighter fleeing his pursuers and ultimately freezing to death in the snow. Poulenc's music is gripping and expressive, with hard-edged, rasping harmonies. Most telling among the four pieces was “Bois Meurtri” (Wounded Woods), with music of tellingly stark bleakness and power. Regrettably a special light cue plunged the auditorium into atmospheric semi-darkness for these pieces, making the French texts and program translations unreadable.

Among the lighter offerings was an only mildly amusing spoof on “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Over a “doodle-doodle” background, countertenor David Hurley wryly read a series of increasingly hostile thank-you notes from a certain Emily, whose exasperation at receiving all those odd gifts is certainly understandable (although she was fond of the five gold rings). I found myself wishing the singers had instead bestowed their talents on Fred Silver's much funnier “The Twelve Days After Christmas.”

An ingenious arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” was built on the foundation of Dave Brubeck's famous jazz classic “Take Five,” complete with jostling 5/4 meters that paradoxically seemed tailor-made for the dignified old carol. A giddy, zippy version of “Jingle Bells” sung sotto voce at a breathless pace was delightfully tongue-in-cheek. Encores included a goofy and sophomoric rendition of “Deck the Hall,” complete with kazoos, and a rather pallid performance of “The Little Drummer Boy.” In the past I've found this group's clowning its least endearing quality, but thankfully it was kept to a minimum in this well designed and executed program.

(Clifford (Kip) Cranna is Musical Administrator of the San Francisco Opera, lectures frequently on music appreciation, and teaches in the Adult Extension Division of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.)

©2003 Kip Cranna, all rights reserved