The King’s Place publicity material promised “a glorious programme entitled ‘Sun, Moon, Sea and Stars: Choral Song through the Ages” – the reality, however, was the launch of the Tenebrae Consort’s latest album, a collection of compositions and arrangements by Bob Chilcott. It also marked the opening of London’s seventh annual A Cappella festival.
Chilcott is widely seen as the successor (at least in publishing terms) to the Oxbridge Christmas-carol arrangers, David Willcocks and John Rutter, and, as a former member of The King’s Singers, he is no stranger to lighter music in a cappella arrangements. His music (both compositions and arrangements) is unchallenging, and the evening passed pleasantly enough. There were arrangements of folk songs from around the world, including from France, the USA, Japan and Finland; a wide geographical spread, in fact, but hardly “choral song through the ages”. And the problem was, really, that, although Chilcott is a skilful arranger, and there is a certain variety in his music, everything felt as though it had been painted with the same colour of varnish; the sound-world didn’t change much from the one established by The King’s Singers somewhere in the mid-1970s – a kind of loose Darryl Runswick jazz influence.
That said, there were some lovely moments: two of Chilcott’s free-composed pieces Sun, Moon, Sea and Stars, and Swimming Over London are haunting and evocative works, the former reminiscent of the theme from The Summer of ’42; the set of North-American folksongs (Feller from Fortune, The Gift to be Simple, The Lazy Man, She’s Like the Swallow, L’habitante de Saint-Barbe) presented a well-balanced and contrasting group of pieces, from the slight Latin rhythm of his unusual setting of ‘Simple Gifts’ to the tongue-twisting L’habitante de Saint-Barbe that brought to mind Ronde, the last of Ravel’s unaccompanied choral songs. The Tenebrae Consort was joined, at one point, by The London Youth Chamber Choir, who added their voices to an arrangement of Walton’s Touch Her Soft Lips and Part (from the Olivier Henry V film soundtrack) and Chilcott’s Even Such Is Time.
The Tenebrae Consort – a sub-set of the main Tenebrae choir – sang beautifully, with the precision expected of such an award-winning group. But here, perhaps, was the problem. This kind of ‘classical group sings popular music’ crossover sound has been around for decades now. The King’s Singers pioneered it in the 1960s, following the more continental jazz-origin lead of The Swingles. In the introductory talk, the joke was made about The King’s Singers being “six bishops on a motorbike”, and, alas, the likes of Tenebrae singing jazz arrangements still feels like this; it’s too well-mannered, too precise, and very, very safe. At one point, one of the singers congratulated their bass on being able to create percussion effects; this, somehow, summed up the slight out-of-touchness of performances like this. The world of a cappella has moved on; indeed, this year’s Festival includes performances from the likes of Shlomo and Home Free, masters of inclusive vocal percussion effects, and only 10 minutes’ viewing of Gareth Malone’s latest programme will reveal that no light-music a cappella group these days is complete without a resident beatboxer, so the concept of vocal percussion should really go unremarked. There may be a market for this particularly middle-class, middle-aged, and oh-so-politely subversive musical genre, but it’s difficult to see how long it is going to continue.
So yes, a pleasant evening, but nothing to frighten the horses.