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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 22, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 8
The King's Singers seduce packed Town Hall
Arts & Entertainment
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The King's Singers seduce packed Town Hall

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

THE KING'S SINGERS
EARLY MUSIC GUILD
TOWN HALL
February 16


It takes a hearty yank to pull these 75-year-old bones across the waters from an idyllic island country home all the way into the noisy city to spend a couple hours sitting on a church bench. This time the 'yank' was a Brit - six Brits, to be exact. The King's Singers brought their charm and wit, along with their well-known musical brilliance, to Town Hall for an Early Music Guild concert of madrigals, all about the triumphs of love and war.

The first notes made me question my choice to attend, for the sounds seemed thin, not very attractive, and above all, boring. But this concert turned out to be a lesson in how the ear/brain can adjust. In a seat so far back from the singers that my ancient ears had to strain to listen (despite $3,000 in sophisticated electronic assistance nestled in both canals), I cursed myself for choosing dainty, distant-sounding madrigals over something more meaty in the comfort of my own lovely home theater. With no choice but to make the most of my compromised position, I listened.

But, as the singers warmed up, so did my hearing. Have you ever been at a concert where the sound was poor, but where your ears gradually became so accustomed that it seemed to improve a great deal? (If I may digress: 1959, Bronx campus of NYU, Gould Auditorium, domed ceiling, horrible echo-ridden sound, the great soprano Elizabeth Schwarzkopf in recital - the first verses unlistenable, yet the voice gradually overcoming acoustics through her artistry, vocal skill, AND the ears' ability to adjust, yielding in the end a fine experience.) So it was that the King's Singers began to sound not only perfectly fine, but even exquisite in their perfectly blended voices (two counter-tenors, one tenor, two baritones, and one bass).

I'm being very subjective here because I'm wondering if this phenomenon is shared by others. It's as though the brain gradually applies filters and equalization to 'correct' the sound. Please let me know if you have experienced something similar. (See my address at the bottom of this review.)

Now, about those madrigals: they turned out to be not so dainty after all. Although the courtly ways of Elizabethan love poetry (much of the first half of the program) were indeed rather courteous and flowery, this program served to contrast such elevated verses of godly manners with the more earthy language of French madrigals (second half of the concert). Even the flowery stuff had much to hold one's interest. Of particular charm was a secular madrigal by none other than Palestrina. And the song that followed by Thomas Weelkes (1575-1623) was most entertaining in its literal translations of the text into musical equivalents: 'Diana's darlings came running down amain' wrought into descending notes, and 'First two by two, then three by three together' sung, of course, by two and then three voices.

Throughout the concert, the King's Singers did a bang-up job of communicating, both through excellent articulation and musical expression. They often lingered on the last note, showing how perfect was their pitch and blend. Vibrato was kept to a minimum and never compromised the dead-on perfection of a chord. From the high counter-tenors to the rich bass, vocal technique was one of perfect control and ease.

The second half of the evening was much livelier, with street cries of Paris and even vocal embodiments of battle, both in works by Clément Janequin (1485-1558). Of special delight were four pieces by Josquin des Pres (1450-1521). As if to show just how lively these six gentlemen could become, an encore had them busting loose in a madrigal of a card game, complete with a black-draped table, deck of cards, high-fives after a winning draw, and even dressing down from their formal suits to 'Rat Pack' attire. This encore was 'Il gioco de primiera' by Alessandro Striggio. (I missed the second encore, needing to catch a ferry.)

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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