The King’s Singers – Masterclass and Concert

Part 1: The Masterclass

You know how I feel about the King’s Singers, I think? Well, they are in Melbourne at the moment, for the first time in nearly thirty years. I didn’t find out about this until the concert tickets were already priced well out of my range, alas, but an email went around last week saying that they were doing a public masterclass for choirs and that audience tickets were only $35.

$35, I can afford.

So I went along tonight and it was *wonderful*. First, it seems that the masterclass really was only organised less than a week ago, so not that many people knew about it. It was thus a rather small audience, and I got to sit right up the front, behind the choirs. Second… well, they are considerably more amazing in real life than they are on YouTube. It’s not just how perfectly, perfectly they sing (and really, they sing *perfectly*), they also have a really wonderful stage presence and charisma – they sang a piece by Bublé, who I really do not see the point in normally, but I could hardly breathe during their performance. They really are that good.

They are also very funny, very nice, and very, very good at working with choirs. I think I’m in love…

I gather, incidentally, that this is something they do more or less for fun and public service – they weren’t paid for the evening, and profits from this evening went to the Choir of Hard Knocks. It was obvious that they really enjoy this kind of work, and they did a fine job of getting the four choirs and vocal groups they worked with to stop hyperventilating at being on stage with the King’s Singers and to hone their singing.

It was also fascinating to watch this as an audience member – I took a page of notes on things I could watch in my own performance (the note that your performance starts as soon as you walk onto the stage was a good one – I hadn’t thought of that, but they really *did* own the stage as soon as they walked onto it, in a way the choirs they worked with didn’t, quite, and I know I don’t), and another page of things I can use when working with my work choir. Though how I’m ever going to get a mixed choir of random scientists from all over the globe to all sing the same vowel sound at once when most of them won’t turn up to two consecutive practices I’m not sure… It was also surprisingly hard work being in the audience – a lot of the notes they gave the choirs were about singing to the audience and not to the conductor, and this does rather require one to be a good audience and pay interested and enthusiastic attention, much in the manner of when my PhD students have their Institute seminar. Especially when one is effectively in the front row. I think I bonded with the soprano section of one of the community choirs. We certainly had a lot of eye contact…

Anyway, I am so very glad I went, and doubly gutted that I can’t go to one of their concerts (they did perform two pieces, with absolute and consummate perfection and I know I keep saying they are perfect but I can’t find another word). But… in some ways, if I had the choice of going to a concert or going to tonight (rather than going to both, my preferred option), I might still have chosen tonight. The size of the group gave it an intimacy and a feeling of participation that I really appreciated. And I am going to *use* those notes.

(also both the small a cappella groups did really interesting music and did it very well)

(and I babbled at lightning speed to the taxi driver all the way home, about the King’s Singers, and about singing, and then about everything else in the world. The trip felt very short, but I suspect it was just that I was speaking very fast. Fortunately, the taxi driver was rather amused by this. And by my totally non-existent sense of direction when it comes to Citylink.)

So here. Have some King’s Singers links.

La Bomba – Spanish madrigal about a shipwreck, complete with wet and somewhat out of tune a capella guitar (be warned, this is long)

The Truth Sent From Above – a Christmas Carol, but wonderful to listen to any time

Money, Money, Money / Summer Nights – this just makes me giggle like a lunatic

The Flight of the Bumblebee

The Goslings – a sad little tale about two goslings…

King John’s Christmas
– I found this one by accident, but hey – AA Milne!


Now is the month of Maying – which they performed tonight

Part 2 – the Concert

My lovely friend A bought me tickets to the concert for my birthday, and it was AMAZING. I’ve never heard harmony that flawless – they were so precisely in tune that you could hear extra harmonics in some of their chords.  Amazing. 

The first half of the concert was madrigals, followed by folk songs, and the second half had a longer work by an Australian composer and then a bunch of pop songs and jazz, King’s Singers style.  It was all excellent, but the first half was the part that really riveted me.  There are a couple of madrigals in that set that I really want to learn – especially one by Weelkes, who enjoys exhibiting composer-humour by making all the bits about running into runs, and singing ‘two by two’ as a series of duets, ‘three by three’ as a series of trios, and then the goddess is left all alone as the plaintive soprano solo.  Very cute.

The highlight of the madrigal section was the shipwreck song ‘La Bomba’ – which has developed more comic business than it had on any of the Youtube versions and was both precisely sung and absolutely hilarious.  I liked the baritone’s little breast stroke and then sad throat-cutting gesture when one of the sailors says that he can’t swim, which reminds all the other sailors that they can’t swim either…  And the business with the non-existent guitar being held backwards, making it even more out of tune was also very nicely done.  But I also liked the way a group which had, in the previous few madrigals, demonstrated that it could sing absolutely as one, could suddenly sing simultaneously with precision and as though they were a whole bunch of random people shouting in a panicked fashion.  You could hear the meaning much louder than the music.  It was great.  Also, apparently that style of music is called ‘ensalata’ – salad – because it is a mix of folk, church, and popular music of the time, along with some original bits by the composer, all tossed together in a music salad.  This may be my new favourite musical term.

The folk songs were all fun, and I have to learn the ‘Dance for thy daddy’ one to sing to the cats, because any song which involves so much dancing and so many references to fishies in dishies is clearly their kind of music.  But the real standout piece in this section was their version of The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, which was truly breathtaking. I’ve never really understood what could be exciting about singing in unison before, but the Waltzing Matilda at the end brought tears to my eyes.  Also, the tenor – on whom I already have something of a crush – endeared himself to me further by managing to pronounce the word ‘pity’  as ‘piddy’, which is of course the proper Australian way to say such a word.  Nice work.  I mean, all the Australian accents in that song were very good (though I noticed that they wisely gave the main solo to the Kiwi member – singing in accents is hard work!), but that was a level of attention to detail that really impressed me. You really *can’t* sing that song with a British accent and have it work.

I went dashing out to the foyer during reception but was too slow (and possibly insufficiently tall and assertive)  to get to the front of the scrum trying to buy the newest CDs.  I did get an older one of theirs, however, which will undoubtedly be the first of many, and I’m looking forward to hearing it.

The second half started with a new piece of music by Elena Kats-Chernin called ‘The River’s Lament’, which was a really interesting piece of work, though also the only piece that didn’t manage to capture my attention throughout.  This is, I think, just a matter of taste – J, who was with me, loved it, and it was beautifully sung, I’m just not generally compelled by modern classical music.  But then, I don’t have to be.  What I really did like about it was the way, particularly in the last movement, Kats-Chernin managed to capture the sound of water (and particularly the sound of rain falling).  The poetry was also very good.  It was just a bit wasted on me, sadly. 

And then they did a set of their close harmony work – Beatles, Porgy and Bess, Bublé and several other pop songs that I recognised to smaller or larger degrees.  A lot of fun (especially with the tenor enthusiastically hamming up the romantic songs), but I wanted more madrigals!  Though, from a programming (and singing) perspective, I can quite see that a full program of madrigals and other classical pieces would be excessively exhausting, and also probably less interesting to an audience of people who are not me. 

We were a very determined and enthusiastic audience and got two encores, and I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t stay to meet with The King’s Singers in the foyer after the show.  Though this was possibly a good thing, really, since mostly I just wanted to babble about how amazing they are and generally bask in the presence.  Which is not very amusing to anyone concerned, especially when I suspect the rest of the audience was in a similar frame of mind.  But, oh, they are *good*.
But yeah – a wonderful evening, and I’m still blown away by the precision of their singing.  I wouldn’t even know where to start achieving tuning like that (and here I thought I was pretty good at tuning…).  And that version of The Band Played Waltzing Matilda is going to stay with me for a while.  I hope very much that it makes it into a recording at some point – it certainly deserves to.

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