“Merry Christmas, America!” The King’s Singers LIVE at The Grunin Center!
As we make our way up the ramp toward the entrance of Toms River, NJ’s Grunin Center for the Arts on Thursday, December 1, 2016, we notice a tremendous amount of activity taking place outside on the sidewalk.
Along with members of America’s greatest generation, young adults, and folks of all other ages who are streaming into the theater, we can’t help but wonder why there is an enormously excited mass of what looks to be over 100 high school students happily chatting in line as they wait to enter the venue for tonight’s special musical event from England: The King’s Singers!
A British a cappella vocal group founded in 1968, The King’s Singers are named after King’s College in Cambridge, England, where the group was originally founded. Members have changed over time, but for the past 48 years, this six-piece ensemble has traveled the world performing mainly in Europe, The Far East, and the United States.
In terms of musical influences, the group not only cites jazz vocal groups such as The Hi-Los, but also the style of singing taught at King’s College, which focuses on a pristine sound where vibrato is only used sparingly. Their famous “pyramid of sound” features a bass/baritone blend on the bottom with tenor and countertenors harmonizing above.
Over the years, the King’s Singers have come to embrace the notion that live vocal performances can both entertain and educate audiences. As a result, they tend to blend both classical and pop music into the majority of their live concerts.
They also espouse a special commitment to education, presenting master classes and workshops at many of the venues where they perform all over the world. And that is why, at the Grunin Center for the Arts — located on the campus of Toms River’s Ocean County College — members of the King’s Singers spent a portion of their day conducting music workshops for approximately 200 high school and college-aged singers.
Many of the young people who performed for the King’s Singers as a part of a choir are currently waiting in line to enjoy a concert presented by the same young men who listened to them and critiqued their performances earlier in the day.
Altogether, this group of young men consists of six talented vocalists: countertenors Patrick Dunachie and Timothy Wayne-Wright, tenor Julian Gregory, baritones Christopher Bruerton and Christopher Gabbitas, and bass Jonathan Howard.
Soon, the theater doors open and the audience takes their seats. The lights dim and the members of the King’s Singers make their way onto the stage to excited applause. They take their places beside one another in a semi-circle, each behind a music stand which holds an electronic tablet.
The group opens their concert program tonight with an exquisite a cappella version of the traditional piece, “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel,” which they perform entirely in Latin. As they sing, they transport this audience of music lovers of all ages on a trip back in time with the piece’s chant-like melody, performed first in unison and then in harmony, the intricate individual parts moving mellifluously apart and then finally back together.
After enthusiastic applause, the members of the group welcome the audience to the Grunin Center saying, “Tonight we will perform a selection of music both ancient and modern” as a tribute “to King’s College in Cambridge, our spiritual home.”
Going on to state, “We hope to take you away and remind you of the true meaning of the season,” they also jokingly add, “and out in the lobby, we have a brand new Christmas album to sell,” prompting giggles from the crowd.
Performing a number of additional classical pieces including Renaissance melodies like Orlando Lassus’ “Resonet in laudibus” and Romantic works such as Tchaikovsky’s “The Crown of Roses,” the live “pyramid of sound” of the King’s Singers is on full display. The group’s sound is notable for its refined tone, luminous vocal harmonies, and crisp diction, not to mention the singers’ use of emotion-filled dynamics.
Interspersed among the musical pieces, the group performs poetry reflective of the holiday season, with readings of works such as John Betjeman’s Christmas and Christina Rossetti’s Christmas Eve.
Highlights of the evening’s program include an a cappella version of Gustov Holst’s beautiful “In the Bleak Midwinter,” it’s ethereal vocal sound emanating throughout the theater. As the gorgeous melody travels along, it is accompanied by unexpected shifting harmonies and lovely countermelodies created to appeal to the ear at every turn.
Another highlight is the traditional British Christmas carol, “The Holly and the Ivy,” the delightful six-part vocal blend reflecting the spirit of the season as surely as a Currier and Ives Christmas print.
Mykola Leontovych’s famous “Carol of the Bells” has The King’s Singers literally sounding like bells, swelling and building in dynamic intensity as the piece progresses to its satisfying conclusion. Following this number, the crowd spontaneously reacts with hearty applause.
A high point of the evening is the King’s Singers’ reading of “Christmas, 1914,” a narrative which comes from the diary of an unknown World War I soldier. In this dramatic account, the soldier writes about a Christmas Eve ceasefire in Belgium between British and German troops when, in the spirit of the holiday season, soldiers from both armies put a halt to the fighting and, instead, perform traditional Christmas music for one another.
The reading segues into a spine-tingling and poignant a capella version of “Stille Nacht” (“Silent Night”), all six of the King’s Singers’ voices floating and blending together to create a melodious stream of sound that fills each audience member’s soul.
Some in the crowd can even be seen weeping.
After taking a well-deserved bow and a short intermission, the men of the King’s Singers retake the stage and inform the audience about a recent live performance they did on New York City’s classical music radio station, WQXR, where they performed many of the songs from their newest CD release, Christmas Songbook.
At this point, they dive right in and perform many of these classic holiday tunes for the Grunin Center audience, among them a bouncy samba version of “Sleigh Ride,” a jazzy bossa nova flavored rendition of “Winter Wonderland,” and a swingin’ performance of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” complete with walking bass and scat-singing.
After captivating the audience with a warm rendition of Ogden Nash’s poem The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Claus, the singers perform a sentimental a cappella version of “The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot.” With this number, the group tugs at the heartstrings of this audience as they sing, “He sent a note to Santa for some soldiers and a drum/It broke his little heart when he found Santa hadn’t come/In the street, he envies all those lucky boys/Then wanders home to last year’s broken toys/I’m so sorry for the laddie/He hasn’t got a daddy/The little boy that Santa Claus forgot.”
Livening up the mood, the King’s Singers perform Meredith Wilson’s “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” the group’s nod to one of their “favorites — Michael Buble.” On this tune, the boys feature a bubbly Lawrence Welk-inspired a cappella vocal arrangement complete with whistles, “ding-dong” bell sounds, and captivating vocal solos.
After a Manhattan Transfer style vocal arrangement of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” the Singers go on to perform a joyous choir-like version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” the audience members lighting up like Christmas trees and demonstrating their appreciation with whoops and hollers, in addition to intense applause.
Before performing their final number, the group takes a moment to address the many young singers present in the audience, thanking them for participating in the day’s workshops and attending this evening’s concert performance. They also kindly compliment them on their vocal talents, proclaiming, “Singing here on the Jersey Shore is very safe!”
Then borrowing a line from another group of musical British lads who took America by storm, they wryly add, “We’d love to take you home with us!” and, after much laughter, invite the entire audience to “meet us after the show.”
Announcing a “grudge match to end all grudge matches,” the group performs their delightful closing number, “Frosty vs. Rudolph, The Re-boot.” In this piece, they alternate between calypso and swing styles while singing updated versions of “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and adding new lyrics like, “Then one groggy Christmas Eve, Santa came to say/“Frosty with your snappy feet, won’t you join my delivery fleet?”
The crowd erupts with cheers and applause, giving these young men from England a standing ovation worthy of this “Fab Six!”
As the smiling audience members make their way out of the theater, several stop to take a moment and talk with us about the memorable a cappella musical experience they’ve just all shared.
Jack from Toms River says, “I’m speechless,” praising this performance as “the best vocalizing I’ve ever heard.”
Kim from Toms River calls the presentation “mesmerizing,” revealing, “I had tears in my eyes, it was so moving.”
Alex, a student from Manahawkin, exclaims, “The performance was awesome!” going on to add, “I like how they did both traditional and contemporary music.”
Kelly, a student from Waretown says, “It was really good. I was fascinated by how well all the singers worked together — they were so in sync with one another.”
Carolyn, a teacher from Manahawkin, talks about the day she and nearly 100 of her students spent here at the Grunin Center enjoying both the concert and workshops sessions which preceded it, exclaiming, “This was a great experience! Earlier in the day, my students were given an opportunity to sing as a group for these professionals, who listened and critiqued them. In doing so, they really helped them to better understand the music they were performing.” Specifically, she praises the King’s Singers for “helping to bring out the various nuances in the music to these young singers.”
In addition to the various audience members who express their opinions regarding the evening, all six members of the King’s Singers also weigh in with their experiences performing here in the United States on this, their North American Holiday Tour.
Tenor Julian Gregory exclaims, “It’s great to be here touring the United States,” while countertenor Patrick Dunachie adds, “We love the people here!”
Baritone Christopher Gabbitas — who hails “from a tiny village in Sussex” — states, “We love performing all over the US,” and countertenor Timothy Wayne-Wright agrees saying, “It’s always good fun here in America.”
Baritone Christopher Bruerton, however, laments that on this trip, he’s been eating too much American food explaining, “burgers and chicken wings are not a good thing for weight loss!”
And bass singer Jonathan Howard sums things up nicely when he exclaims, “Christmas in America is glorious — great music and great food! The people here are so kind,” going on to say to all of the folks here in the Garden State and around this incredible country:
“Merry Christmas, America!”
To find out more about the King’s Singers, please go to www.kingssingers.com. For further information on upcoming performances at The Grunin Center — including Vocalosity on January 22, 2017 and Sons of Serendip on February 10, 2017 — please go to www.grunincenter.org.