King's Singers leave us wanting more

What with the political bomb shells falling in Washington during the past few days, St. Bede Catholic Church was a refuge for reflection, hope and really terrific music Friday.

Two years ago, the Virginia Arts Festival brought to us an exceptional holiday gift with the appearance of the internationally acclaimed King’s Singers. To our great pleasure, the VAF brought them back this year and the timing was just perfect.

Established 50 years ago in Cambridge, England, the all-male vocal ensemble is akin to royalty in a cappella singing and ranks as one of the top vocal ensembles in the world. The six vocalists — two countertenors and baritones and tenor and bass — have a firm reputation for pin-point accuracy in pitch, close harmony, diction and everything else imaginable.

Attacks, releases, dynamics, expressive delivery, rich blend of sound, things that are usually taken as desired qualities for any vocal group, are elevated to a high realm of artistry with the Singers. It’s akin to hearing six singing as one. In fact, every move is choreographically unified.

Their entrance and exit from the performing space was done in slow, processional style. Restrained. Hands were uniformly poised in front of them; bows were perfectly executed. Everything was perfect. Well, almost, but more about that later.

For the fare, they drew from their “Christmas,” “Christmas Song Book,” and “Gold” recordings, the latter its 50th anniversary album. The works ranged from esoteric to traditional to contemporary. Some were familiar, some not. Some were repeats from the program last sung here.

They opened with a modern day “Born on a New Day,” with its hopeful sentiments, based on the Holy birth, for “healing sadness ending strife.” Following came an exquisite “O Come, Emmanuel” and rhythmic “Gaudete.” Among the many others were “Ave Virgo Sponsa Dei,” a Renaissance work of haunting beauty and superbly executed polyphonic lines; gentle “Shepherd’s Carol”; clever “Carol of the Bells,” which at times found the Singers actually sounding like bells; and “We Are,” an upbeat work addressing the power of music to unite and the fact that “we are more alike than unlike.”

The second half brought songs announced on the spot. Here was heard “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “Still, Still, Still,” both of which were slightly removed from the basic lyrical designs but still rich in harmony, sensitivity and meaning; “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” a jazzy blend of traditional with Dave Brubeck; a sweet “Christmas Song”; and “Jingle Bells,” which found the normally restrained Singers slightly comedic.

Now to the “almost” from above. For as unified as was the group’s singing, there were interesting observations, not necessarily criticisms, in the second half.

Many of the songs had solo-type moments and here it was notable that individual vocal quality or style in those moments seemed surprisingly varied for a group whose fame is built on rock solid composite sound and style. It was also evident that not all approached those solo-type moments with the same degree of delivery — some projected, some did not.

Projection also showed up in the explanation of songs throughout the program. Some projected so you could hear them and others did not, which was especially important in the second half which had no printed titles. Pending on seating location, much of the ongoing narrative was lost. A microphone would have been beneficial.

But, as one person rightly suggested, and as Robert Shoup did during Thursday’s VSO and Chorus program, feeling the transporting power of a piece and its sound often surpasses the need for hearing-understanding lyrics.

In the end, it’s the spirit and, at that, the King’s Singers offered us a chance to relax and pause from holiday stress and simply enjoy and find peace. Can’t ask for more, except a return visit.

Shulson, a Williamsburg resident, has covered the arts for more than 40 years. He makes a guest appearance in Margaret Truman's "Murder at the Opera."

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