King's Singers bringing their impeccable sound, unique history to Ann Arbor
Indeed, they're perhaps the most versatile of all of the a capella vocal groups, with a repertoire that ranges from church music and classical compositions to jazz standards to meticulously-crafted vocal arrangements of pop songs—which cover the ground from the Beatles to Adele and most points in between.
As a result, they're also one of the world's most celebrated vocal ensembles, with a discography that includes more than 150 recordings, and a performance schedule of about 120 shows per year, all over the world.
When they group comes to Ann Arbor on Thursday, they'll mostly be singing sacred songs, performed at St. Francis of Asisi Catholic Chuch. The concert is being presented by the University Musical Society.
The first section of the program, "Pater Noster," which is about 50 minutes long, will consist of songs from their latest recording of the same name, which is subtitled "A Choral Reflection on the Lord's Prayer." The pieces were drawn from a period of a few hundred years, and were composed by a range of historic composers, from Heinrich Schutz, Francis Poulenc and Igor Stravinsky to William Byrd, Henry Purcell and Leonard Bernstein.
The "Pater Noster" album and concert pay homage to what is obviously one of the most important texts in the Christian liturgy, and one that inspired all of these composers to musically interpret its text in various languages.The second section of Thursday's program will consist of "five Catalonian folk songs, and then our usual final set of close-harmony interpretations" of songs from various genres, says baritone Christopher Bruerton, a New Zealand native who just joined the ensemble last year (and is the first-ever non-Brit to join). That final set could include anything from a Beatles favorite to "Greensleeves" to Nat King Cole's "Straighten Up and Fly Right" to a Micheal Buble tune to a song "that Adele has made fairly famous," says Bruerton, slyly.
Besides Bruerton, the group includes bass Jonathan Howard, baritone Christopher Gabbitas, tenor Paul Phoenex, and countertenors David Hurley and Timothy Wayne-Wright.
The "Pater Noster" program is especially close to the hearts of the group members, because, historically, members of The King's Singers have been singers whose musical educations date back to their childhoods, singing in church choirs.
"Over the decades, most of the singers in this group have been church choristers since they were very young," says Bruerton by phone from his current home in Oxford, England. "Coming from a church-music background, we grew up with many of these pieces, so we feel a very strong connection to this music.
The "Pater Noster" album was the first one that Bruerton recorded with the group, "so it also has extra special meaning for me. I'm sure all of the guys can remember their first album with the group.
"It really is a lovely program," enthuses Bruerton. "And the music is glorious. Most of these composers were devout Christians who were creating these songs to praise God, so there's a great deal of passion in the music. And it really takes you on this wonderful journey through the centuries, and through different languages and styles of writing.
"They're very beautiful works, and many of them were initially written to be performed by larger choirs, so to hear them sung by just six voices gives many of them a chamber-music feel, and makes the music even more intimate." Adding to the intimacy is the fact that the Ann Arbor performance is in a church and not a concert hall.
But even though The King's Singers members have historically received their initial vocal training in the church—and many of them have gone on to earn music degrees at prestigious Brit universities—they revel in weaving those pop, jazz and folk styles into the mix.
"Some of us have been music teachers, so we taught other styles of music, and some of us have also been professional singers in other contexts before joining the group, and we all love different kinds of music," says Bruerton, who was previously a high-school music teacher and a member of a percussion ensemble, in addition to being a professional singer.
"For example, I love reggae, and the Beatles, and jazz standards, and soul music, and all of the members of the group have very eclectic musical tastes—we just love music," enthuses Bruerton. "We enjoy the breadth of styles, which keeps things fresh, and which has also given us a repertoire of about 3000 songs or musical pieces to draw from. Someone could conceivably come and hear the King's Singers 50 times over the years and hear a different program each time."
The group is also known for injecting wry and / or droll humor into their performances. For example, when they travel to a non-English-speaking country, they introduce the songs in the language of their host country, even though they may not be fluent in that language. "So sometimes our pronunciations may not be so great, and our attempts can be comical, and the audience likes that we made the effort," he says.
They also perform songs that have comedic texts, like one group of songs based on English "nonsense limericks" that were translated into Italian. Another piece, Bruerton notes, is a Greek translation of "Old MacDonald Had a Farm," in which the vocal parts morph into the various animal sounds: "That one always gets some laughs."
Kevin Ransom is a freelance writer who covers music for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at KevinRansom10@aol.com.