Their kingdom for a song

This year, two of the more than 120 concerts of the King's Singers perform annually will be staged at the upcoming Israel Festival.

May 22, 2010 07:06
Countertenor David Hurley. 'We all have equal say

David Hurley 311. (photo credit: Marco Borggreve)

The King’s Singers would, no doubt, agree that varying your output and making sure the goods on offer are of the highest quality is a sure recipe for success. It must also be a good way of guaranteeing longevity because the world-renowned a-cappella sextet has been putting out top-selling recordings and pulling in the crowds for more than 40 years and picking up a Grammy in the process for the 2009 release Simple Gifts.

Actually, on the matter of length of service, some qualification is in order. None of the original six singers is in the current lineup that will grace the Henry Crown Auditorium stage at the Jerusalem Theater on May 25, but most have been thrilling audiences the world over with the ensemble’s unique mix of classical, liturgical, ethnic, jazz and contemporary sounds for quite some time.

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Countertenor David Hurley, for example, has been with the group for just over 20 years and says that he and the rest of the gang have become accustomed to going with the personnel flow.

“Actually, if you look at how the group has gone, there haven’t been that many changes,” says Hurley in a telephone interview from Turku, Finland, where the King’s Singers were on tour prior to their Israeli jaunt. “[Bass singer] Stephen Connolly has been with us since 1987, and he is leaving at the end of the year. We are getting adjusted to the idea, but that gives you an idea of how long we stick around with the group.”

In fact, Hurley says, the vocalist turnover – albeit infrequent – has its upside, too. “We have had times when a member of the group has announced he wants to leave, and then we start wondering how we are going to replace him. But then someone new comes in and brings with him a new injection of enthusiasm and ideas. The legacy of the former member carries on, but we get some new input as well.”

Hurley believes that part of the group’s longevity is also due to the absence of a hierarchical structure. “We all have equal say about what material we do, regardless of how long we’ve been in the group. There is no single artistic director – all six of us are artistic directors.”

The King’s Singers were founded in 1968 by six choral scholars who attended King’s College in Cambridge, England – hence the name. They enjoyed great success in England until the early 1980s, when they started looking for new audiences abroad. Today, the sextet performs more than 120 concerts a year all over the globe, including China, the United States and Europe, and has recorded prolifically, putting out more than 150 albums to date.

Their repertoire is rich and varied, encompassing madrigals, liturgical material, folk songs and pieces specially commissioned by the group. The concerts normally end with something light, such as a song by The Beatles or Queen or something from The Great American Songbook by the likes of Harold Arlen or Irving Berlin – all, of course, performed in the group’s inimitable quintessentially English manner, with a liberal seasoning of humor. “We like to send our audiences home with a smile on their faces,” notes Hurley.

For Hurley, joining the King’s Singers was a natural development. He’d cut his teeth as a church chorister and had sung material performed by the group when he was in his teens. “When I was 15, I saw them sing ‘Timepiece,’” he recalls, referring to a piece commissioned by the Camden Festival in 1972 from composer Paul Patterson. “I was very impressed. I had sung works by [contemporary English composer John] Tavener as a chorister, which have been recorded by the King’s Singers. He has a simplistic style but, as a young man, he wrote grand avant-garde pieces too, like ‘Celtic Requiem.’ I’d done that as a chorister and it seemed a little weird to me. But then I heard the King’s Singers do ‘Timepiece’ which, at the time, was avant-garde but somehow it seemed to have a great story behind it. To me it seemed like it was ‘contemporary music without the pain.’ That appealed to me.”

Hurley says he has a preference for liturgical material but is happy to go along with whatever democratic decision the group makes. “That’s part of the joy – the wide repertoire we do, which I find so wonderful. My heart really lies in doing the early music. I love the Renaissance music, but I also love contemporary and romantic music, even though as a countertenor I get less of an opportunity to sing with romantic songs.”

Hurley says he particularly enjoyed doing the Sacred Bridges program, which the group recorded in 2005 with Sarband, a German early music ensemble that comprises musicians from seven countries and focuses on musical connections between East and West, and between Jewish, Christian and Muslim music. The CD comprises Jewish, Islamic and Christian psalm settings, some of which are performed in Hebrew.

“In fact, the material we recorded tells a fascinating tale of a 17th-century man from Poland who moved to Turkey and converted to Islam,” explains Hurley. “He took psalms and translated them into various Arabic languages and adapted the melodies to a Turkish musical style.”

The group continues to commission new material, keeping abreast of contemporary vibes by culling new works from a range of genres. “Back in the early 1970s the group had an interesting collaboration with a couple of exiles from South Africa who created a set of Zulu songs. There they were, six English guys singing Zulu. It was strange but wonderful stuff,” says Hurley with a laugh, adding that he is drawn to material from different cultures himself, even if does involve a certain degree of risk-taking.

“I love listening to world music. Cross-cultural works are very interesting. Sometimes it is interesting to know how to place yourself in an artistically slightly dangerous position, although sometimes it can also be a bridge too far.”

For Hurley and his cohorts, however, the bottom line is about moving their audiences and giving them their money’s worth. “The King’s Singers are there to entertain, to make people laugh and cry, and to enjoy the musical experience. It’s also important to offer a broad palette. I think we manage to do that.”

Considering the group’s hectic performing and recording schedule, Hurley appears to have a point.

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