Chamberfest: King’s Singers offer a special golden blend this holidays

The King's Singers are in concert with the Ottawa Choral Society and Chamberfest.

There have been 26 members of the King’s Singers over the past 50 years. That’s four groups of six plus two spares, says baritone Christopher Gabbitas, all dedicated to the idea of ensemble singing. And there is little doubt it works.

The six singers do dozens of concerts each year and have recorded dozens of albums since the professional debut of the sextet in 1968.

This then is a big golden anniversary year for the group and they’ll help celebrate it in Ottawa with two Chamberfest concerts with the Ottawa Choral Society in Ottawa this weekend.

In 1968, The Beatles were the biggest band going. Just about two years later, the Fab Four were done. The six King’s Singers carry on.

Gabbitas, who it turns out is a bit of a renaissance man, has a thought on why.

“I was an attorney before I did this job and I have continued that work. In the past few years I have been doing a lot of legal work for pop singers. What I notice from that world is that people burn very brightly and not for quite so long. In the classical world things are generally slower.”

But it is more than that. The original six King’s Singers had been singing together for five years before they began their professional career, he said. They were choral scholars at King’s College Cambridge under the leadership of Sir David Willcocks, one of the legendary names in 20th century choral music.

“He was the inspiration for the King’s Singers sound,” Gabbitas said, “which is a very straight tone, not too much vibrato unless appropriate and always basing the sound on the fundament, the roots of the chord in the bass notes.”

Gabbitas said he believed that the sound caught the imagination of the public over time.

The original six “were doing something new and different, but they didn’t have the freneticism of the pop world.”

Turns out Willcocks didn’t think much of the original group, Gabbitas said.

“He is quoted as saying it would never work. He thought countertenor Alistair Hume was one of the worst voices he had ever heard.”

Willcocks didn’t wish the original six ill, Gabbitas said, but he didn’t think the group would make it.

“The group didn’t set out to prove him wrong but they disregarded all his naysaying. They put forward the idea that if we sing for each other and we listen to each other you feel as though you are inside this sound and you are creating something far greater than if all six are singing solo.

“We are world-class ensemble singers. That’s what we love. That’s what we do. That’s what we have devoted our musical lives to.”

It may not be as crazy as being a pop star, but being a member of the King’s Singers is demanding all the same, Gabbitas said, who is leaving the group after this final tour to pursue a career in the U.S. starting at the University of Redlands in California.

“I am retiring at the end of December. I have done 15 years, nearly 2,000 shows and more than 30 albums. I have given a huge amount of my life to the project. I don’t resent or regret it but the last few years, since the birth of our third child, have been very tough. My wife has been a rock and incredible but it is fair to say both of us are fed up with being apart all the time and we are looking forward to my retirement and my homecoming at the end of this month. The group robs you of a proper family life. It really does.

“In all honesty I could have left at any point in last three years. For me it has always been important to keep learning. I was appointed in 2004 but in the last three to five years I haven’t felt like I was learning anything. I have great colleagues and I’m fond of them but it was time to think of moving on.”

He said he decided to stay for the 50th anniversary of the group. And, also in the end, because there is still magic in the music. He lives for those “moments on stage when the chords hit perfectly and the rubato is just brilliant. It doesn’t happen every night, but you search for it.”

The average length of time people stay with the ensemble, he said, is about 12 years and the range is between 10 and 15 years.

“I don’t think there will be many going beyond 15 years. Some guys have stayed more that 2o years, but they joined in the 1980s. Things were different then. They thought they had a job for life. That’s not case now.”

In Ottawa, the group will sing with the Ottawa Choral Society.

“It’s not that common for us to sing with choirs. About 10 per cent of our performances are with choir.”

The program will feature what Gabbitas calls a standard global Christmas program with some advent “favourites” and some French carols.

They will also sing one of the favourite songs of the King’s Singers over the past half century Ave Virgo Sponsa Dei by Adrian Willaert, a Dutch Renaissance composer.

“It almost seems written for our voices. There are six voices in a traditional Renaissance form of using a cantus firmus in one of the voice parts and then four-part harmony around it and then a fifth voice, a quintus, which was seen as very daring and innovative in the early 16th century.

“The parts sit well in our voices. There is some beautiful polyphony where we can come into our own. It just fits.”

This song is not that well known, he said. And that they sing it is testament to the side of a musical career that happens in libraries and archives.

“We have had researchers over the years work very hard to get us best manuscripts and best editions. We, ourselves, have dug into libraries at Oxford, Cambrudge and London and looked into these parts books from 500 years ago and made new editions of the music.”

The result is “you are singing things which perhaps haven’t been heard for hundreds of years.”

This is an example of the British choral tradition which Gabbitas has been steeped in since he was an eight year old boy treble at Rochester Cathedral. The choir in that place has been singing for more that 1,400 years since 604 AD.

Gabbitas believes that the King’s Singers are an offshoot of that tradition.

“I think we are evolving it. Lots of other groups have started because we have inspired them. In 1968, when (the original six) were asked to perform they pulled out a little bit of this and that and then they started commissioning. Other groups have realized there is no need to limit themselves to one style of music. It keeps singers interested and the audience interested. There is nothing worse than singing a whole program of the same style of music.

That choice isn’t welcomed by everyone, he said.

“We have fallen afoul of some members of the classical music press because they have been annoyed that they can’t pigeon hole us.”

But the Singers aren’t fazed by that.

“Each genre of music inspires the other,” Gabbitas said. All of it is music to us.”

For example, they sing a version of I’ll Follow The Sun by The Beatles that was arranged by tenor Bill Ives who was with the Kings Singers in the 1970s and ’80s.

“We sing it almost like a piece of classical music.

“You don’t have to limit yourselves musically. You need to know what the rules are. Once you understand them, you can break the rules.” As a solicitor, Gabbitas knows all about rules.

He studied law on the advice of his singing teacher.

“She said that if there was anything I could do apart from singing I should do it. What she meant was if you are supposed to be a professional musician it will find you. But if it’s not meant for you, don’t let it wreck you life.

“She said she had seen far too many lives destroyed. I took her advice. I got a choral scholarship to Cambridge but I didn’t apply for a singing degree, I applied for a law degree. I loved way it taught me to think.”

He’s done a lot of legal work for the King’s Singers over the years, he said.

He was practicing in London and singing in a choir at the Temple Church in London when he was invited to audition for the ensemble.

“They invite people to audition because they know what they are looking for. They know within 20 seconds whether a candidate has potential or not.”

Chamberfest presents Silver and Gold
With the King’s Singers and the Ottawa Choral Society
Where: Dominion-Chalmers United Church
When: Dec. 14 and 15 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.