Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Review: King's Singers and Sarband

We went to hear the King's Singers and Sarband last night, in a joint concert called Creating Sacred Bridges, exploring "the Parallels between Jewish, Christian and Muslim Liturgical Music."

The rather slender uniting thread:
Settings of the Psalms of David, revered and extolled in each of the three monotheistic religions, by composers from the 16th and 17th centuries, performed in Hebrew, French and Turkish.
It should be noted that the the Jewish composer featured (Salamone Rossi) worked in the classic high Renaissance style and the Islamic composer (Ali Ufki) was a converted Polish Catholic (more about this below), so the range of styles is not as extreme as one might expect. No matter, it was a beautiful 72-minute program, perfectly performed with no intermission and no applause until the very end.

Visibility is nil in Duke Chapel unless you're in one of the first rows; almost all I could see was the entire head of the tallest counter-tenor, down to his adam's apple. The instrumentalists in Sarband were sitting and I never saw a one of them till the standing ovation. Also, the Chapel is cruel to diction - it was almost impossible to tell what language was being sung. However, the perfectly tuned sonorities of the a cappella ensemble, the gorgeous cadences, at full volume or exquisite pianissimo, hung in the air of that cathedral-like space and froze me in dazed satisfaction. It was the sexiest intonation I've heard in a long time. I could hardly breathe.

Sarband had a strong and expressive singer, too, and fine Turkish instrumentalists. They were a bit under-utilized.

The only other thing I could see in the narrow, crowded Chapel: the two Whirling Dervishes who would stride in slowly, arms crossed across their chests, remove their black cloaks - kissing them and laying them carefully aside - and then began to turn, always in the same direction and at the same relaxed pace, arms raised and outstretched, wrists relaxed, heads lying to the side. It was, as intended, hypnotic, though during their second, extended appearance it popped irreverently into my head that they were like two ceiling fans set on "low." Another link.

The King's Singers have been around since 1968 and have made some abominably cheesy recordings. I shudder to even think of them. Eleanor Rigby? Black gospel? So crashes and burns the concept of crossover. When providing the classic fa-la-las they have also sometimes been nauseatingly effete. But I have no complaints about the "Bridges" repertoire, nor the way they sang it. This current incarnation of the group appears to have excellent taste and I hope they make more recordings worthy of their voices.

Salamone Rossi, a very interesting character and the only composer I know of who set Hebrew liturgical texts in Italian Renaissance style, wrote some gorgeous pieces. I get the Triangle Jewish Chorale to sing a new one almost every year and the music is so good that even our, uh, less than expert renditions bring satisfaction.

Lastly, get a load of this incredible story!

Ali Ufki (1610-1675) was born in Poland, a Christian by the name of Wojciech Bobowski! He was "captured by Krim tatars [at the age of 13] and sold into Osman slavery where he converted to Islam and became the court musician of the sultan's seraglio!" He was, as well, a translator in the imperial court of that Sultan, Mehmed IV, in Constantinople - he spoke sixteen languages and translated the bible into Turkish!

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At 9:48 AM, Blogger Isabella said...

Thanks for this. I'm loving the samples of Sarband I'm listening to right now, and adding their CDs to my wishlist). (Reminds me of the early work of another group: La Nef, specifically "Musiques pour Jeanne la Folle" – I think you'd like it.)

I'd love to know more about this Ali Ufki – do you have a source other than program notes? Doesn't seem to be much online other than what you've already told us, or else it's in Turkish.

At 2:53 PM, Blogger kenju said...

I would love to see Whirling Dervishes in action. I think it so graceful, and as you said, hypnotic.

At 10:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I chanced upon this by accident, and am so glad that you like me enjoy the work of the King's Singers; I am very familiar with their discography and performances and agree that Sacred Bridges was a special occasion indeed.

However, I am saddened by some elements of your review, as they display an unfortunate misinterpretation of what the King's Singers are about and how they perform. I hope that my post will help to explain some of this.

First, I find the link between the three monotheistic religions in terms of their reverence of the Psalms of David, an extremely strong (as opposed to tenuous) link, and with the modern-day tendancy to emphasise differences, the incredible convergence of these three otherwise diametrically opposed faiths is extraordinary. That is of course just opinion.

Secondly, when the King's Singers was formed, in 1968, there was no such thing as "crossover." They simply took the two elements of their daily lives (evensong in King's College Chapel, and the popular arrangements they performed as dinner entertainment to earn some extra cash) and put them together. Sir David Willcocks said it would never work, but because nobody else had ever attempted to be good at everything, the world sat up and took notice. From the beginning, then, the brief was never to ignore or be cynical of any form of music, as long as it displayed virtuosic elements in its own right. "Crossover" is a word that has been invented to gloss over the less-than-virtuosic performances of attractive yet relatively untalented musicians who seek to bastardise wonderful classical music to make it more saccharine for the masses. The King's Singers are unique - they have never ventured into the world of "Crossover" music because they have never needed to. Pop music is presented as just that, with no apology, and classical music (whether Machaut, Cornyshe, Tallis, Byrd, Palestrina, Brahms, Reger, Sibelius, Nkosi, McCabe, Ligeti or otherwise) is presented on its own merits as well.

I find that the comments on the music of the "Beatles" and "Black Gospel" (the latter hardly a politically-correct term in itself) smack of musical snobbery; in their own way, the Beatles are the modern-day madrigalists, equally as important in terms of their compositional originality and sheer volume of work as Mozart or Bach. The way that the King's Singers approach all these more popular forms of music is with the same humility due to any of the "great" classical composers - sympathetically and precisely, using the same clarity of pitch, diction and intonation as you enjoyed so much in Sacred Bridges. The word "cheesy" is incredibly wide of the mark - this implies either a lack of taste, a lack of excellence or poor pastiche. The music of the Beatles can never be accused of this, and seeing as George Martin himself worked on the King's Singers' album, and they have worked with Sir Paul McCartney as well, I think we can give them the benefit of the doubt on that one.

Likewise the "effete" nature of the "Fa la la la las." Again, I think the point is missed. The poets did not put these phrases in for lack of thought, or as a "filler," but for very good reasons of censorship. Elizabethan madrigals are the "pop" music of their day; to deride them as being invalid is simply not comprehending their purpose. They speak of everyday life, and love. Innuendo was as popular a dramatic tool then as now, and one can easily imagine the listeners rolling around with mirth during each "fa la la la la" as the previous phrase's innuendo was embelished and the audience left to imagine exactly what the lads and their bonny lasses were getting up to. To sing such phrases in a straight way without emotion or stagecraft makes for a simply tedious performance which entirely negates the purpose of the piece. You mistake the emotion that the King's Singers put into their madrigal performances, describing them as "effete," which is complete nonsense! Effete means "without force, vitality or emotion" yet it is the very emotion in the performance to which you object.

To imply that the current group has "excellent taste" because they presented Sacred Bridges is not only highly patronising and insulting to one of the finest chamber groups ever to perform, but it again shows a lack of understanding. Do you know, for example, that on their subsequent tours to the US they have performed shows made up exclusively from the songs of Paul Simon? Or that one of their best-loved encores is a hilarious version of "Old MacDonald had a farm" - either in Italian or Greek? Does this mean that their taste is somehow questionable? The audiences didn't seem to think so. Would it be "unworthy" of their voices if they happened to make a recording, say, of "world folksongs" or "the music of Lennon & McCartney?" The latter's music knocks the socks of that of Salamone Rossi (hardly a High Renaissance composer when compared with Gesualdo, composing at the same time just down the road).

I feel terribly sorry for those fans of classical music who are so blinkered that they can only appreciate tiny proportions of the rich musical heritage that this world has to offer, all for the sake of appearing "high-brow" and "knowledgeable." They are bitter, and missing out on a broader experience and appreciation of music. I also think it a great shame that people could ever mistake the breadth of repertoire of the King's Singers, and their attention to detail in relation to all of it, as anything other than an extreme dedication to the love and performance of music. They simply cannot be compared to "crossover" artists, or indeed anybody else.


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