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Pies to Penderecki: the King's Singers

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    Brian Kay Friday April 25, 2008 The Guardian It is said that if you can remember the swinging 60s, then you weren t there. But I can clearly recall the three
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 28, 2008
      Brian Kay
      Friday April 25, 2008
      The Guardian

      It is said that if you can remember the swinging 60s, then you weren't
      there. But I can clearly recall the three memorable years I spent
      studying for a degree in music and singing as a Choral Scholar in the
      choir of King's College, Cambridge, four decades ago. It was a
      wonderful time and place to be developing a passionate interest in
      music: my fellow students included would-be conductors John Eliot
      Gardiner, Andrew Davis and David Atherton, early-music pioneers David
      Munrow and Christopher Hogwood, a young man already making waves as a
      composer called John Rutter, and six of us who went on to become the
      King's Singers.

      The Choral Scholars at King's had inherited from previous generations
      a flourishing library of close harmony arrangements: light-hearted
      cover versions of well-known pop songs, folk and show songs, glees and
      madrigals. We used these as an escape from the serious business of
      daily services in the college chapel, and were in demand as performers
      at university rag days, dinners and at "smoker" concerts for the
      Footlights Club. My generation, having indulged ourselves in this
      field perhaps more than some, put together enough material for a
      long-playing gramophone record, and decided that we should spend some
      of our vacations visiting our old schools and performing concerts.
      Trading under the eye-catching name Schola Cantorum pro Musica Profana
      in Cantabridgiense, we put the best sacred music from our experience
      in the chapel choir together with the more "fun" items from our
      somewhat scurrilous extra-curricular musical activities. It went down
      a storm. By the time of our London debut - on May 1 1968, when we
      shared the platform of the Queen Elizabeth Hall with Neville
      Marriner's Academy of St Martin in the Fields - we had, thankfully,
      become known as the King's Singers.

      Music clubs, festivals and broadcasters began to take an interest.
      Steve Race fell for our "new sound" and played us on his BBC radio
      show. There had been plenty of male-voice groups before, made up of
      tenors and basses, but our addition of two countertenors gave the
      King's Singers a unique colour. There's little doubt, too, that our
      mixed programme format appealed, bringing together sacred works from
      the 14th to the 16th centuries, Romantic part-songs, Victorian parlour
      songs, and an increasing wealth of contemporary music - both serious
      and light - which began to pour in from composers and arrangers keen
      to exploit our new sound.

      The variety shows that punctuated early 70s TV schedules were the
      perfect place for six unaccompanied voices to make a mark. (We
      appeared with the likes of Nana Mouskouri, Shirley Bassey and Val
      Doonican.) We gave up our day jobs, and the King's Singers become a
      full-time organisation.

      As the television work increased, so our concerts became more
      populist, and we found ourselves charged with dumbing down instead of
      capitalising on our privileged choral background. As the then
      broadsheet critic Nicholas Kenyon commented: "The King's Singers have
      the unique ability to reduce everything they sing to the lowest common
      denominator." The sight of six former King's Choral Scholars dressed
      as the six wives to Harry Secombe's Henry VIII must have ruffled a few
      feathers. As did another moment when we appeared, stripped and
      freezing, in baths, to sing In the Bath by Flanders and Swann.
      Not that the TV work was all so glamorous. I remember an appearance on
      the Spike Milligan show, when, as we straightened up after our final
      bow, Spike and five others rushed at us with custard pies. It was very
      unpleasant - I can still taste the zinc ointment. But ultimately, our
      feeling was that if this kind of stunt brought large audiences into
      the concert hall, where they would then hear such things as madrigals,
      motets and serious contemporary works, then it made sense.

      What our critics forget is that at the core of the group there was,
      and still is, an enormous repertoire that includes many large-scale
      works composed specifically for the group. Luminaries such as
      Penderecki and Berio were commissioned by us for our morning concerts
      at the Edinburgh international festival; Takemitsu, Rodney Bennett,
      Maxwell Davies, Menotti and Tavener also wrote for us. One brilliantly
      crafted piece of musical entertainment by Paul Patterson, called Time
      Piece, remains to this day an all-time favourite with singers and
      audiences alike.

      I often think of an evening on our first trip abroad, in 1972. We were
      in New Zealand, performing a mixed programme that began with motets
      and madrigals but ended with some jolly folk songs. This was to an
      audience of staunch chamber-music lovers. As they filed out, we heard
      one of them grudgingly admit: "I'm rather afraid I enjoyed that!" We
      knew we were on our way.

      ยท Brian Kay sang with the King's Singers from 1968 to 1982.

      King's Singers 40th Anniversary Celebration concerts are at Cadogan
      Hall, London, on April 30 and May 4, and at King's College, Cambridge,
      on May 1.



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