Two months ago, the King's Singers saw their first American baseball game, at New York's Shea Stadium. They also sang at it, offering a pregame selection of Beatles and Beach Boys songs and, for good measure, "The Star-Spangled Banner." Which must have tested the limits of even this wide-ranging British sextet, topped off as they are by two countertenors.
"It is amazing how broad a range that tune covers," admits Alastair Hume, who is not only one of those countertenors but was one of the group's founders more than 20 years ago. I remind him the tune itself was originally British, and he agrees they have no one to blame but themselves.In every other way, though, this seems to be the group's "America" year. At least that's the title of their newest EMI CD, a collection spanning the likes of Paul Simon, Jimmy Webb, Randy Newman and Don McLean. It also happens to be the kind of program they're offering this week with the Utah Symphony in concerts Friday, July 13, at 8 p.m. in Symphony Hall and Saturday, July 14, at Deer Valley. (Starting time for the latter is 7:30 p.m.)
There the orchestra, under Kory Katseanes, will perform a variety of traditional and patriotic numbers, while the King's Singers lend their unique sound to "Yankee Doodle," "Shenandoah," "Simple Gifts" and songs of Gershwin, Ellington, Simon, Newman and James Taylor - an apple-pie lineup if there ever was one.
But, Hume points out, the American connection is not all that remote from the group's origins.
"I think there's always been a substantial body of American music in our repertoire," he says. "We've always liked to have as wide a range as possible, and obviously the pop-song genre would give us some fantastic songs from the States - Gershwin, Ellington, Harold Arlen, people like that. That's always been one of our fundamental principles, to do music of quality, regardless of what particular bag it comes from."
Growing out of the King's College, Cambridge-based Schola Cantorum Pro Musica Profana, the group's main influence was, not surprisingly, the great English choral tradition, from church music to 16th-century madrigals.
But, Hume recalls, there were also some American groups that provided a major source of inspiration. "The Hi-Los, for example, represented what seemed to be the absolute epitome of the other side of what we did in chapel - the blending of the sound, the shading of the voice and the tuning." Beyond that he cites what he calls that group's "flesh-and-blood commitment to the words, the meaning of the song."
That's not hard to believe, especially when one recalls both groups' emphasis on the upper register - always an arresting element in the Hi-Los' arrangements, but no less so in the King's Singers almost disembodied, high-church crooning of Jimmy Webb's "Witchita Lineman."
At the same time, Hume acknowledges, another profound influence on the group's development was the Deller Consort, particularly its recording of Tallis' "Lamentations of Jeremiah." Again, it's a broad repertoire.
Moreover, at last count it numbered more than 2,000 pieces. Even so, the group continues to expand its horizons, recently taping not only an album of Strauss waltzes with clarinetist Sabine Meyer and veteran bass player Georg Hoertnagel but a George Shearing collection with the blind jazz pianist himself.
It's also done this despite personnel changes, as traumatic for a group like this as it is for a string quartet.
At present, Hume estimates, there are around "13 or 14 ex-King's Singers" beyond the current six, of whom he and baritone Simon Carrington are the only charter members. "Obviously what we do is very demanding, and when one takes in the added stresses of world travel and so forth, well, you have to be very careful about who comes in. Not replacing like for like, because you can never do that and I don't know that you'd want to. Because although you lose some things, you gain a tremendous number of other things, providing an opportunity for refreshment and revitalization, a chance for the group to grow."
One of those who survived the cut is 27-year-old countertenor David Hurley, who joined the group last February.
"The strange thing about that," he reflects, "is that I can remember going to a King's Singers concert at Winchester Cathedral with my family when I was a teenager. They'd already established a very big following in Britain, doing a lot of television and stuff like that, and I never dreamed I might be singing with them someday."
Prior to that, Hurley says, he had been free-lancing as a countertenor with various British consorts. "Obviously in a situation like that you tend to make your mark as an individual. But when you're in a group like this, the important thing is the sound of the whole, and you always have to be mindful of what everybody else is doing. That means everybody has to be singing at the right dynamic and that the vowel sounds need to be exactly the same. Otherwise the listener's ear will be drawn to whatever is different."
Both men acknowledge the result is a small sound. But rather than try to make it bigger, Hurley says, "the philosophy of the group is to draw people into that sound. The ear can tune in on really quite small sounds as long as it's given time. That's why after the first piece, we often lower the level and do a quiet piece. It's amazing the effect that has on an audience, keeping them quiet, too."
And, obviously, coming back for more.
Tickets to Friday's concert are priced from $13 to $19, with student tickets available at $5. Deer Valley tickets are $13 in advance or $15 the night of the concert, with seating on the lawn; $25 reserved seats are also available. For information call 533-NOTE.