The King’s Singers are two-time Grammy Award-winning a capella group founded in 1968. Today the ensemble travels worldwide, appearing in over 125 concerts each year in some of the world’s most famous concert halls. They have a discography of over 150 recordings, ranging from Bach to Bublé. Alongside their numerous concerts, The King’s Singers also run education projects and currently have over 2 million items of sheet music in circulation through their publisher, Hal Leonard.
I was lucky enough to speak with two members of The King’s Singers after their talk at the Oxford Union. David Hurley is the longest-serving current member (having joined in February 1990), and Christopher Bruerton is the group’s latest addition (February 2012). They sing countertenor and baritone respectively.
Do you approach each genre in a different way?
DH: We approach everything as a piece of music. Inevitably there are some differences between Renaissance, Classical and Pop pieces, but there is a cross-over of sound between the styles. We tend to use more of a breathy sound in the pop stuff than in the classical repertoire, but we don’t have a different sound for different pieces.
How often do you introduce new repertoire?
DH: There’s always stuff that we’re introducing. Sometimes it’s introducing it for everybody, and sometimes it’s introducing it to some of the group. We did a concert last night in Christ Church, Spitalfields. The second half was by request: people bought a raffle ticket, and the money went to the King’s Singers Foundation. If their number was drawn, they were given the opportunity to pick what we would sing next from a list of about 40 songs. For me it was relatively easy, but for Chris Bruerton (our newest member) there was an awful lot of stuff that he’d had to learn especially.
Current recording projects are a very fertile area when it comes to enhancing the repertoire. We’ve just recorded some Renaissance French music (including Josquin and Jacquet de Mantua), and very little of that music was in the group’s repertoire. We have a studio album that we’re recording at the moment, and basically every piece on the album has been especially written for this particular recording. That will be an hour’s worth of new repertoire, but generally it’s a piece here and a piece there. Sometimes you’re looking for a piece to fill a gap in a concert programme, so you look beyond the group’s current repertoire. People come into the group with ideas and people who’ve been in the group for a long time have ideas. People outside of the group offer us ideas, some of which we take up. We probably introduce a new piece every month.
CB: I remember that each of the first 5 concerts after Easter was a different programme. There were 100 pieces in the space of a week. I did find that a bit overwhelming!
How did you fit in learning them all?
CB: I spent as much of the Easter holidays learning them. Some of the guys use travel as a chance to catch up on sleep or do some of the other jobs that they have responsibility for. I feel that up until now every other waking hour on tour (if not at home) has been spent learning the music. I don’t feel that I can go for a nice stroll out around Prague, for example. It feels weird to go to a city and people often say, “Wow, you’ve been here and here!” but really I’ve just been to the concert hall, the train station and the hotel, but I haven’t actually been to Prague. It gives you a flavour of what these places are like, and I’ve drawn up a list of places I’d like to go to.
DH: A lot of the programmes that first Easter were very familiar to the rest of us. One of the disadvantages to joining the group is having to learn all this music that everybody else knows backwards because they’re not so inclined to spend hours rehearsing it jointly! It’s always a fantastic moment (I remember this when I was new in the group) when something that’s new to everybody appears and the playing field is suddenly levelled. That is a joyous moment!
CB: The project that David just talked about was the first time that I felt on a level playing field. It was a real relief to think, “Yeah, I can do this”. The rest of the time I felt I was playing catch-up.
DH: The truth is that everybody round you was struggling as hard as you were!
The group has been trying out some concept programmes recently. How have your audiences reacted?
DH: One programme we’ve done this year is called ‘Royal Rhymes & Rounds’, a CD and concert programme which looks at royal music through the ages (particularly in the times of King Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria and the present Queen). It ties in quite nicely with this Jubilee year. It’s a lovely programme because it covers a lot of different styles of music. In a sense it’s a standard King’s Singers programme because it has Renaissance, Romantic, contemporary and light music – it has all the elements.
We did another album recently called ‘Pater Noster’, which is a very serious sequence of pieces looking at the different clauses within the Lord’s Prayer. It has a different setting of those words at the beginning of each section. It’s a fantastic programme of amazing music, but it’s not a standard King’s Singers concert because it hasn’t got the variety of repertoire (although you can sing the sequence and then go on to sing spirituals, so you can provide light stuff). Very often, we sing at a festival and we’re told that the festival has a theme. We went to one where they said that the theme was ‘Trees’, and we battle for ages to create programmes which relate to the theme: The Oak and the Ash, The Wishing Tree…
CB: Often with very tenuous links!
DH: You draw these pieces together, and then you arrive to see that people are playing Beethoven and Mozart
You must wonder why you bother!
DH: To an extent it does feel a little bit like that! They say “You’re so good, you really took our theme on board!” and we think that if we’d known we might not have done so much! Sometimes having a linked theme is a great way for the presenter of the concert to sell the programme. Instead of saying that there’s a mixture of Byrd, Stravinsky, Bernstein and all these strangely disparate styles of music, they can say that this links it all together: The King’s Singers and the theme. Ultimately, as a group you’re trying to help them fill the space in order to sing to as many people as possible.
It’s the group’s 45th anniversary next year, so what are your plans for that?
CB: I know we’ve got some pretty exciting trips abroad to places that the group hasn’t been to either for a while or ever! There’s a plan to go to South Africa (where Paul hasn’t been since his first tour abroad 15 years ago!) and it’s looking likely that in May we’ll go to South America for the first time ever! I’ve always wanted to go to South America, so it’s very exciting. I love music that’s Latin-inspired: jazz, or pop or rock or whatever. I was a percussionist before I joined this group so I love that Latin feel. To go to where it all started is great.
DH: Apart from celebrating by continuing to do concerts and tours… We celebrated 25 years, we celebrated 30 years. We had a single concert for 35. We celebrated 40 in a pretty major manner. I think that the idea is not to make too much of 45, but to make 50 really great. We’ll probably have a concert to celebrate.
How did your recent CD (‘High Flight’) come about?
DH: In 2008 we celebrated our 40th anniversary with three commissions: one by Eric Whitacre called The Stolen Child, which we commissioned with the National Youth Choir of Great Britain (who were celebrating their 25th anniversary), which we premiered at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. Our main anniversary concert was in King’s College Chapel on 1st May (which is seen as the actual birthday of the group). We asked our former tenor Bob Chilcott to write a piece. One of the pieces which he was going to set was the Prayer of St Richard, and then he found another piece he wanted to do. That was the poem by John Magee, who became a Spitfire pilot in WWI. He went up really high in his Spitfire and wrote this wonderful poem which has great meaning for pilots and astronauts which talks about touching the face of God. Bob was very moved by this poem and decided that he was going to set it, but he’d already started working on A Thanksgiving. He decided (as the generous man that he is) that he would send both of them. We suddenly had this amazing repertoire which we wanted to record, and there was other stuff by Lauridsen. We thought about choirs in the UK and there were lots of possibilities, but we have very close connections with the brilliant choir of Concordia College in Minnesota and their conductor René Clausen. We decided that they were the best choir to go with, and so the album came into being. It’s got some beautiful music on it by three of the great choral composers of the twentieth century.
To find out more, visit http://www.kingssingers.com/