Vocal music often is an integral part of the holiday season, whether for a family gathering, community sing-along or religious service. The King’s Singers celebrated this tradition with a program that spanned centuries and styles with refinement, sophistication and humor.
Their performance Saturday night at the Folly Theater, presented for the ninth time by the Harriman-Jewell Series, was exemplary of their worldwide fame and 46-year output. This six-voice male a cappella group now is David Hurley, Timothy Wayne-Wright, Julian Gregory, Christopher Bruerton, Christopher Gabbitas and Jonathan Howard.
Their concert was fantastic, showcasing a variety of vocal styles as well as their tremendous skills with sensitive phrasing and careful balance (helpful in creating resonance in the theater’s drier acoustical environment), maintained with a soaring countertenor from Hurley and a resounding bass from Howard.
A set of religious works from the European Renaissance opened the program, many of the plainchant melodies ubiquitous to services today, followed by a selection of British carols with dramatic text painting. Arrangements of traditional Catalan songs cast a different perspective on the Christmas story and traditions with lively vocables.
Two works were not holiday themed, mindful that dark days are not altogether held at bay by pleasant tunes and festive decorations.
Francis Poulenc set “Un soir de neige” on a poem by Paul Eluard. It came out of the French Resistance during World War II, likening the harshness of winter to the destruction and fear of the era. Poulenc’s treatment gave the text unexpected severe turns emerging from a delicate texture, emphasizing the tension and defiance of the experience.
More bittersweet was Ian Coleman’s “Remembrance.” The text was taken from a poem written by the series’ founder Richard Harriman, discovered after his death. The composer arranged the King’s Singers’ version specifically for this performance. The three high voices intoned with fragile repetition while the lower voices pursued a gentle melancholic line.
During the final set they cheekily sang clever, fun arrangements of tinsel-decked popular favorites, ending with an encore that included kazoos and drunken hiccups.
In the midst of these shenanigans, though, they recalled the unofficial Christmas truce that occurred in 1914 during World War I between the German and British soldiers. In remembrance, the group sang a poignant “Stille Nacht,” with beautiful, simple harmonies.
These moments evoked the universal binding of sorrow and of joy, pure humanity expressed in song.