King's Singers are grand even if 'Billy' disappoints

March 24, 1997|By David Donovan | David Donovan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Musical magic was in great supply Saturday evening at the Meyerhoff with the King's Singers. Only the King's Singers could present Renaissance madrigals and British folk songs with the Beatles, Beach Boys and Bobby McFerrin and a highly demanding contemporary work with such ease and panache.

This is one of the few groups whose live performances are much more vivid than their large and splendid recorded repertoire.

The motet "Ave Virgo" by the Belgium composer Adrian Willaert impressively began the evening. The opening phrase blossomed into the hall with such beauty that the audience was immediately transfixed in a deep state of religious reverence. The control and exact intonation was like a perfectly blended organ, only better because of the King's Singers' ability to warm the tone without losing the center of the pitch.

The Renaissance madrigals from England that followered were as fine as the opening motet. The madrigals of John Bennett, Thomas Weelkes, Thomas Tompkins and Thomas Morley were handled with a smooth weave of pictorial imagery and tonal beauty. Best of these was Weelkes' "The nightingale, organ of delight" with marvelous bird imitations throughout.

The world premiere of "Billy the Kid" by American Libby Larsen closed the first half of the program. For this, the King's Singers were joined by the entire Baltimore Choral Arts Society Chorus under the direction of Tom Hall.

"Billy the Kid" (commissioned by the King's Singers, the BCAS and the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus) is a giant, eight-movement bear of a work based on "The Collected Works of Billy the Kid" by the Canadian poet and novelist (of "The English Patient") Michael Ondaatje.

This listener would love to say that this is a major new addition to the choral repertoire, but this, unfortunately, is not the case.

The problem lies in the fact that the original Ondaatje text is a combination of prose and poetry that allowed one to get inside the heads of the outlaw Billy the Kid and Sheriff Pat Garrett, the man who killed him. Libby Larsen's truncated version of the text simply did not illuminate the drama of Ondaatje's original.

The King's Singers and the Choral Arts Society gave their all but the result was a series of episodes that simply did not hold together. Worst of all was that the music given to the King's Singers just did not utilize their maximum talents.

Fortunately, the second half returned to terra firma for the King's Singers with folk songs from the British Isles and a delightful set of their special arrangements.

Best of the folk songs was a drop-dead gorgeous "Londonderry Air." The final set showed why the King's Singers are masters of the musical firmament by giving us versions of songs by Phil Collins, the Beatles, and even the Beach Boys that combined high art with show-biz fun and pizazz.

And Bobby McFerrin's spicy "Manana Iguana" gave the King's Singers perfect exit music that brought the capacity audience to its feet.

The best gift of the evening was the encore of the signature tune for the King's Singers: "You Are the New Day." This was tenor Bob Chilcott's last performance in America with the Singers, and "New Day" was a fitting way to hear his last effort with this stellar sextet.

Pub Date: 3/24/97

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