Introducing The King’s Singers

The King's Singers © Rebecca Reid

The King’s Singers are coming to Hong Kong in July where they are Resident Artists of the 2019 World Youth & Children’s Choir Festival. Brian Chiu, from the World Youth and Children’s Choral Artists’ Association, talks to Jonathan Howard, the legendary vocal group’s bass.

About The King’s Singers

Hello Jonny. It’s a pleasure meeting you. Can you introduce The King’s Singers to us?

Sure. The King’s Singers is a six-man vocal group that was founded by former choral scholars from King’s College, Cambridge in the 1960s. They gave their first official professional concert on the First of May 1968 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the Southbank in London. A unique blend of traditional choral repertoire alongside other, more popular music (rarely – if ever – sung by groups with a choral background) from across the world, all performed a cappella, propelled the group to worldwide fame over the following decades.

In 2018, we celebrated the group’s fiftieth anniversary. This took us all over the world, with over 150 concerts in fourteen months all the way from Carnegie Hall in New York to Tokyo’s Opera City, the Wellington Festival in New Zealand and National Centre of the Performing Arts in Beijing. There have only been 28 King’s Singers ever, and there are only ever six at any one time.

The King’s Singers was founded with students from the King’s College, Cambridge. But over the years it has evolved into an international group. For the group that is coming to HK in 2019, how culturally diverse is it? And we heard there are two new members too? Who are they?

The King’s Singers has always looked for its members in England until now, which means that there has been a predominance of English men. Our aim, as we move into the future, is to make sure we’re celebrating the widest variety of music and traditions, and so are consciously looking for perspectives that come from further afield. Currently within the group, we have one half-Japanese member and one who was born and grew up in New Zealand, alongside others with a more local upbringing. We know that we always want to preserve vocal quality, but more than ever we want to do so in a way that doesn’t feel exclusive. The group of 2019, with two new members who joined at the beginning of this year, are determined to keep the group looking outwards from our home in England, rather than focussing inwards. (more to add when we know more about the two new members)

How does The King’s Singers pick the singers? Is the process competitive and rigorous?

The process has always worked by recommendation thus far. When one of us decides he wants to leave, we each ask all our contacts if they know someone who might be suitable for our group. We draw up a shortlist of candidates and invite them to sing with us. They learn the notes, then join us in the line-up when they come to audition, so that we can really feel what it’s like to sing with them, as well as hear it. It’s a really fun process, particularly because we rarely get to sing with anyone new – it’s normally just the six of us – so this provides a chance to see what the impact can be if you try out different kinds of voices and personalities. We usually do at least two, if not three rounds of auditions before we pick someone to join The King’s Singers. We know it’s a decision we don’t want to get wrong!

How often does the group meet / rehearse / perform?

Most of the time, we meet when we’re on tour. In 2018, we did almost 140 concerts, which meant we were on the road together a lot. This gives us a lot of time to rehearse – up to two hours before each concert – and a lot of time to meet (we’re particularly good at using dead time while we’re waiting in airports). Of course we need to meet with our management teams and the people who run our Foundations when we’re in the UK, but our time at home is precious, and we try to reserve it for our friends, our families and ourselves if we can help it.

What might be the unique elements that make up The King’s Singers?

Lots of things about being a King’s Singer are unique to this job, but I think my two favourites are (1) the amount we travel, and the diversity of places we travel to (I feel very lucky that I’ve been to so many countries that I would never have been to otherwise); and (2) the fact that we’re a partnership, so everyone is equally in charge, right from the moment someone joins. There’s no business leader or musical director, so your thoughts matter immediately, which I think makes everyone feel really invested in the music we’re singing, and the performances we’re making.

In your opinion, what might be the group’s most notable achievements / experiences? The most unforgettable performances? Any fond memories or occasions?

I have had so many unforgettable experiences already in my first eight years as a King’s Singer. It’s hard to beat performing in many of the world’s greatest concert halls – I can remember walking out on the main stage at Carnegie Hall for the first time and my heart skipping a beat – but I also think a lot of my most special moments are to do with meeting people all over the world who are moved by our music. There’s no point in us doing what we’re doing if it doesn’t mean anything to anyone. Going all over the world – to corners as far flung as China, Chile, South Africa or New Zealand – and seeing that people are touched by our craft is what makes this job so worthwhile.

Programme

What repertoire does The King’s Singers usually perform? Is there any special emphasis / strength in your repertoire or performances? Is the group perhaps notable in performing or interpreting any kinds of music?

The King’s Singers have always wanted to celebrate a wide range of music in every concert. There is so much great music written for unaccompanied voices written from the Renaissance right through to the present day, from all over the world. We want to show what’s possible by putting different kinds of music side by side, and presenting them in a way that doesn’t give one style a greater sense of importance than any other. I like to think that the particular ability we have is to allow the music to speak for itself by putting it first, whatever genre it is, rather than putting the sounds of our own voices first and then the music second.

In our festival, what do you plan to sing for us in the two evening concerts? Any pieces we should look forward to? Is there a ‘theme’ for the concerts?

I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that one programme is called Love Songs, and the other one is a modified version of one of our Gold programmes, which we put together to celebrate our 50th anniversary, and performed all over the world last year. In both programmes, our aim has been to craft them in such a way that new and old pieces, as well as pieces that the audience will know and pieces that they won’t know, are cleverly placed next to each other, so that every piece might be heard in a new way, informed by the unexpected pieces around it. We want every piece we sing to have real meaning. And that happens best through ingenious programming.

Touring

Obviously The King’s Singers are always ‘on the go’. In fact it may have travelled to more places than any other groups in the world. Can you give us an idea how much do you actually travel? How many days within a year in average are you away from home, and how many countries/cities/towns in average would you visit? Which tour was your record longest? And which tour was the shortest?

I mentioned that we gave just under 140 concerts in 2018, across America, Europe, Asia and Oceania. Typically we won’t go away for more than three weeks at a time, as otherwise we feel like we’re away from our friends and families in England for too long. But I’m certain we were out of England for over seven months last year, which is a long time. I think our longest trip was 24 days – to Singapore, Australia and New Zealand – and our shortest are always a day. I think the quickest overseas trip the group has ever done was for an afternoon concert in Amsterdam. They flew at 11am from London, gave a concert at 3pm and were back in London by 8pm. That’s fast.

Are there any places that The King’s Singers haven’t been but would really love to go and perform?

Antarctica is very high on our list of desired places, and we are in discussions about it. Personally I’d love to explore a lot more of Africa, the Caribbean, and the Indian Subcontinent. In many of these countries, people are only just starting to learn about choral music, and so I’d love to be among the first wave of groups connecting with these new audiences.

How many times have the group been in Hong Kong / China? Are you excited this time? What are you most looking forward to?

The group has been coming to Hong Kong for decades, and I remember tales from former colleagues about flying into Kai-Tak and eating particularly unusual dim sum very fondly. The group only started travelling to Mainland China in 2006, although I believe 2019 will mark our tenth visit. I absolutely adore Chinese food, both in Hong Kong and on the mainland. I love foods that are really spicy, which is something you don’t find often in England, but I also love wandering through markets and picking things up on the streets. You never quite know what you’re going to find!

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