Ahead of their concert in the new Marlowe Theatre which will bring this year’s Sounds New Festival to a close, I put three questions to Jonathan Howard, bass with the group, who describes himself as ‘’twenty-five, six-foot five, brown hair, likes travelling and sushi, dislikes peanut butter,’’ about why the group is so excited about coming to Canterbury…
Tell us about your ensemble
The King’s Singers have been around for over 44 years. There are just six of us – two counter-tenors, a tenor, a baritone and a bass – and we perform almost exclusively a cappella: that’s right, no accompaniment, just the six of us on stage, and almost always with no amplification. Over the course of the 130 concerts in our 2011/2012 season, we’ve been all over the world, in venues including the Sydney Opera House, Carnegie Hall, the Berlin Philharmonie and the Beijing National Concert Hall. Our repertoire is incredibly diverse – the group performs Renaissance polyphony and pop songs in equal measure – and contemporary music takes a prominent place in lots of our programmes. It’s an honour to perform at the Sounds New Contemporary Music Festival in Canterbury next month, and to be able to share what we believe are some of the most exciting contemporary pieces in our repertoire.
What excites you about contemporary music?
Contemporary music is so exciting to us for a number of reasons. For a start, it often makes us question our established beliefs about music: as is so often the case in contemporary music, the harmonies and rhythms used are so out of sync with Western musical conventions, that we really have to think about what the piece is trying to say, and how it is trying to respond to its musical antecedents. Then there’s the fact that many of the contemporary pieces that we sing were commissioned by the group for the group. It means that the voice parts in each piece tend to fit the voice parts within The King’s Singers brilliantly, and the pieces themselves have really been designed to suit our ensemble. Finally, there’s the fact that contemporary music is often pretty tricky – it’s great for us to have music that we really have to sink our teeth into.
What can we look forward to in your concert for Sounds New next month ?
Well, it’s a programme composed almost entirely of pieces that were commissioned for The King’s Singers, by some of the great composers of the 20th century: Peter Maxwell Davies, John McCabe, Paul Patterson and former tenor in The King’s Singers, Bob Chilcott. (We admit that Britten’s ‘Choral Dances’ from Gloriana were not written for us….) And, following a first half of pieces that have been in our repertoire for a number of years, we’d like to present a piece that’s new to us this year, to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of HRH Queen Elizabeth II. A Rough Guide to the Royal Succession by Paul Drayton is a witty enumeration of the kings and queens of England, warts and all, right through from the seventh century to the present day, and it’s an absolute delight to perform. We hope you enjoy it, as well as the rest of the concert, as much as we do, and we look forward to seeing you all in Canterbury on May 15th. We might even throw in a few contemporary pop songs, to make sure we’re really sticking to the theme….”
To whet your appetite, here’s the group in John McCabe’s evocative and purple-hued Scenes in America Deserta, which is part of the all-British programme for their Sounds New concert.