The King’s Singers are named after King’s College in Cambridge, England, where in 1968 six choral scholars got together to sing.
Forty-five years later, The King’s Singers are still going strong, and tour internationally every year.
The King’s Singers have also become a beloved act in Utah, and on Feb. 19 and 20 they will perform at the Cox Performing Arts Center at Dixie State College.
The six men will perform many of the group’s favorites, as well as selections from its latest album, the ambitious “Pater Noster: A Choral Reflection on The Lord’s Prayer. “Each divinely inspired song focuses on the individual clauses of The Lord’s Prayer, and result is nothing short of gorgeous.
Baritone Chris Gabbitas answered questions posed by The Tribune about the ensemble’s longevity, most recent projects and why Utah brings back special memories.
Do you have memorable experiences of performing in Utah?
It’s always special when we’re invited to Utah. We know we’re going to an area which is a real choral hotbed, and we’ve been privileged to perform several times in Salt Lake City, both in Abravanel Hall and in the Tabernacle. Outside Salt Lake City we’ve been to St. George several times before, as well as Provo and Ogden during my time in the group. I suppose if I had to pick one stand-out occasion, it would be the Christmas when we were guests of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for their annual Christmas broadcast, from the Conference Center in Salt Lake City. For four nights we sang to 23,000 people, and the feeling of being surrounded by that amazing choir and orchestra, singing some of Mack Wilberg’s wonderful arrangements, is something that will never leave me.
Where did the idea for “Pater Noste,” come from, and how was it executed?
The project came about in the same way that all our programs do - we sit around and talk through repertoire options, finding themes and concepts that work, and fleshing out possibilities. Our best sacred programs start with a backbone or theme, and in this case we realized that for the previous few seasons we’d been gradually adding several settings of the Lord’s Prayer, in many different languages and styles, composed throughout the ages. Someone (I honestly can’t remember who) hit upon the idea of presenting a number of different settings, and then presenting other works in between that represented each phrase of the prayer, in turn. Thus you have a setting of “I am the bread of life” by Palestrina, to illustrate the phrase “give us this day our daily bread,” and so on. It sprang from a single meeting, but has become one of the programs of which I’m most proud. Naxos, the record label, became interested in recording the project, which led to our live CD recording in Nashville last year.
When you do a two-night performance in one location, how much do you change the set list?
Unless there is a specific request to the contrary, we will keep 75 percent of a programs identical when we’re doing multiple concerts. The reason for this is two-fold: first, most multiple shows are to enable twice as many people to hear a concert, so there’s no problem with duplication of material as the vast majority of the audience is different - and it means they don’t have to agonize as to which show they want to attend. Secondly, it makes it easier for us to keep the standard of performance as high as possible. We do change programs frequently - we have over 3,000 pieces of music in our library - but obviously it’s helpful to have continuity of performance in order to create subtleties that only evolve over time. We do, however, always change the Close Harmony group at the end of each concert. This is the group of pop, folk and spiritual songs that we sing from memory and which each member chooses in turn. So, you get six different choices and styles of group, depending on whose turn it is on that particular night.
Do you believe that audiences should be educated as well as entertained?
Absolutely. I think it’s easy in this world to take the path of least resistance, whether it’s with fast food, television or other entertainment. As with raising a child, you have to use a stick and carrot approach; give them something they know they like, but also attempt to broaden their horizons, allow them to experience (and, hopefully, enjoy) new things. I don’t mean to sound patronizing at all, but it would be easy for all of us in the digital age to pick and choose exactly what we listen to, what we watch, and never ever branch out. We know that many people come to our concerts to hear the Close Harmony, the pop and jazz arrangements. That’s fine - it’s an important part of what we do. But we make those people wait until the end and try to introduce them to other forms of music first. Equally, many people come to our concerts wanting to hear madrigals or other Renaissance music. Others come for our contemporary classical compositions. We strive to present each form of music with exactly the same level of integrity, professionalism and musicality. If we can show our audience that it’s all valid, and make amazing sounds on-stage no matter what the genre, we truly believe people will expand their horizons and see all our repertoire for what it is: simply, music. It’s good for all of us - we’re enriching our lives each day by discovering new repertoire and putting it into our programs.
Is there a misconception about the ensemble that needs to be corrected?
None of us has true perfect pitch. Many people think that to be a good choral singer you need to have pitch. You really don’t - and in our job it would be a bit of a handicap. We transpose a lot of music, and we don’t tune to each other in an even-tempered way. What I mean by that is that we don’t sing “piano chords,” where each not has an exact pitch and frequency. We fine-tune to each other by listening intently to the chord around us and making microscopic adjustments. If we stuck stubbornly to where we thought we KNEW the note was, our chords wouldn’t ring and you’d never get a good balance, blend and harmonic language. I think the rest of the preconceptions about the group are probably true.
The King’s Singers have a diverse repertoire. What are some of the group’s favorites, and do they align with the favorites from the crowd?
I think you’d get six different answers to that question. The simple answer is that we try hard not to let our personal favorites get in the way of what would make the best performance. Speaking personally, there are some songs I’d love never to have to sing again, but I know that one of them in particular is a crowd-pleaser and our audiences love it. So, it’s worth doing. You have to remember that for some audience members this may be the only time they ever get to hear the group live. We may be a little tired with singing a particular song, but for that one person it could be something they’ve been waiting to hear for years. So, we pick and choose our repertoire based on what we think will work in the venue, for that particular concert series or promoter, but we always stick to music we sing well at that time. At the moment we’re really enjoying the ‘Pater Noster’ program, and also have a new album of studio material which is due for release in the autumn, based around the Great American Songbook. The songs are timeless and we have all-new arrangements, so it’s an exciting time.
Where do you see the ensemble moving/becoming over the next 40 years?
Interestingly I think the essence of the ensemble has remained true to itself since the foundation of the group, and that’s why we’re still going strong after 45 years. There are other groups who have made a choice to change something about themselves, and to move away from their roots. We’ve never wanted to do that because as the current members we understand and appreciate that the founding members hit upon something very special, and worked incredibly hard to make it successful. I think it would be a great shame if the group ever made a decision fundamentally to change what it tried to do - which is simply to approach many varied styles of music with great integrity and attempt to entertain audiences around the world. That’s not to say that we are perfect and have no need to improve and grow our repertoire; but the essential principles of The King’s Singers will, I think, always stay the same, because it’s still the benchmark by which all other a cappella groups are judged. We’re incredibly fortunate to be the custodians of that tradition today, and hope to hand the group down to the next generation of singers in as good a shape as we found it.
The King’s Singers
When • Tuesday, Feb. 19 at 7:30 p.m.; Wednesday, Feb. 20 at 7:30 p.m.
Where • Cox Performing Arts Center, 325 S. 700 East, St. George.
Tickets • $20 at dixie.edu/concerts