January usually sees the arrival of the London A Cappella Festival, but the organisers have decided to let 2020 lie fallow. As compensation, though, the Festival’s host group, The Swingles, were joined by the King’s Singers for two linked concerts (Finding Harmony and Evolution) on Friday and Saturday evenings.
Although the membership of both groups has changed over the decades, they are – having both been formed in the 1960s – the UK’s ‘a cappella’ groups of longest standing, and it was a pleasure to hear them both perform together. In terms of style they are very different. The Swingles have always tended more to the jazz and pop idioms, and their incorporation, these days, of live looping and beatbox techniques reflects this; The King’s Singers still remain very much true to their male voice close harmony origins, and although arrangements of pop and folk have always joined more classical fare in their repertoire, their USP is still centred around the English university choral sound which their name suggests.
The joint items across the two evenings were particularly enjoyable; whether sung, á la Swingles, with amplification, or unmodified, the effect of thirteen voices on stage, sensitively deployed for blend – as is the craft of a cappella groups – was very special indeed. Not only the two Billy Joel numbers (New York State of Mind and So it goes), but U2’s MLK and Michel Legrand’s What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life benefitted from the dark richness that a slight preponderance of lower voices brought to the ensemble. Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah was given a beautifully understated and contemplative treatment in an arrangement by Phil Lawson, demonstrating how well the groups had managed to adjust for numbers, and, in an exposition of how the augmentation could be fully exploited, the overlapping entries and changing rhythms of the wordless Lovers’ Desire – a Swingles classic – gained even more texture and exuberance.
As might be expected for concerts that needed a deal of rehearsal of joint numbers, the sets for the individual groups (four each across the two evenings) contained some material drawn from existing repertoire. The King’s Singers presented songs from across the group’s five decades – including arrangements of Blow Away the Morning Dew, One Day and Penny Lane by Gordon Langford, Richard Rodney Bennett and Bob Chilcott respectively. As always, these were slick, well-blended and full of cleverly delineated character (the two countertenors’ precise and slightly fussy ‘clean machine’ in the Beatles number, for example).
The Swingles presented songs from their solo concert at the end of last year’s Festival, but these were nonetheless enjoyable to hear once again: Sara Brimer Davey’s haunting solo work in the cleverly textured cover of LP’s Tokyo Sunrise, Ollie Griffiths’ gentle, yet intense, delivery of Mumford and Sons’ After the Storm; the subtly characterful arrangement of Simon and Garfunkel’s America; the all male (with live looped clapping from the women) Forgotten. Star of the Swingles’ numbers, though (and performed on both evenings), was the dextrously arranged and delivered adaptation of Ray Charles’ up-tempo Hallelujah I Love Her So, the solo performed with élan, some brilliant scat work and a change in pronoun by the group’s high tenor, Jon Smith.
For the second concert, The King’s Singers gave us a UK première of Tricksters, a piece written for the group by Judith Bingham. Trickster characters from several cosmologies (Coyote, Loki, Kwaku Ananse, the Moon Hare) attempt to influence the Creator, and Bingham’s setting of the text is perfect for the group, allowing dialogues between different voices, howls, character acting, and some swing pastiche all to play their part, and the work was given a knowing and sure performance.
The first concert also gave The King’s Singers the opportunity to sing some numbers from their forthcoming album, Finding Harmony, which concentrates on what might be termed ‘songs of solidarity’. These are songs that have united oppressed groups of people both past and present, including Cielito lindo (Mexico), Tsintskaro (Georgia), Puirt a’ bheul (the 18th century Highland Clearances), S’Dremlen fegl (a Yiddish lullaby) and This little light of mine (the southern states of the USA). Again, the sensitive and clever arrangements were given excellent and well-blended performances including James MacMillan’s arrangement of O chi, chi mi na mòrbheanna which was graced with nuanced singing in canon.