The King’s Singers to present the Great American Songbook

The King's Singers - photo by Chris O'Donovan

After a wildly successful 2014 tour, The King’s Singers return to North America this February to treat audiences once again to their Great American Songbook program. The renowned vocal sextet returns to Hesston College’s Yost Center for their seventh appearance on the Hesston-Bethel Performing Arts Series on Feb. 23 at 7:30 p.m. Ticket prices range from $23 to $27 with discounts available for students and seniors; call 620-327-8158 or visit the Hesston-Bethel Performing Arts website for more information.

Thanks to grant funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, The King’s Singers will present a choral master class from 11:45 a.m. to 1:15 p.m., Feb. 23, at Hesston Mennonite Church on the Hesston College campus. The class will feature performances by the Hesston College Bel Canto Singers, the Bethel College (North Newton, Kan.) Concert Choir and the Goessel (Kan.) High School Elbiata Singers. The master class is free and open to the public.

The Great American Songbook program offers up sunny, sophisticated versions of their favorite tunes by Rodgers & Hart, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, arranged by the fast rising British jazz composer and bassist Alexander L’Estrange. Derived from their 2014 record of the same name, the tunes evoke nostalgia for a golden age of American musical culture. After a performance of this program last spring, the Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote, “Each arrangement was simply breathtaking, especially when performed by such an outstanding ensemble. They may be cheeky Brits, but they show real love and appreciation for these American classics.”

For baritone Christopher Gabbitas, these songs, written during a golden era of American songwriting (mostly for stage and screen), belong in the same category as German lieder or Frenchchansons.

“These songs were written by classically-trained composers and they endure because of their exceptional integrity,” says Gabbitas. “The beautifully crafted nature of these songs make them classics already. They have the weight of history and form a journey through the emergence of a nation through its pop culture.”

Considering the depth and breadth of the source material, song selection for this program was no easy task. The final list features 17 well-known tunes, songs that the Singers “utterly loved.” They are heard in stunning new arrangements by the fast rising British jazz composer and bassist Alexander L’Estrange. L’Estrange’s harmonically colorful re-workings of these standards maintain the integrity of the source material while reflecting The King’s Singers hallmark blend and wit. The result is a recording where the ensemble is able to luxuriate in the emotional harmonies of When I Fall in Love as well as bring their distinctly British sense of humor to a daffy rendition of Let’s Misbehave.

The group recruited a pair of a cappella gurus, Bill Hare (The Voice, Street Corner Symphony) and Danny Ozment (NBC’s The Sing Off) to create one of the group’s most ambitious and innovative programs to date. After bringing the songs up to performance standard together, each piece was then deconstructed and recorded part-by-part, resulting in a sparkling, modern sound that offers a 21st-century counterpoint to The King’s Singers first mannered recordings of other American standards in the 1970s on top-selling albums such as Swing and Out of the Blue. A second bonus disc offers yet another twist on the material with orchestral versions of eight tracks, recorded with the South Jutland Symphony Orchestra and featuring orchestrations by Jonathan Rathbone. The result of these fruitful collaborations is an immensely satisfying and joyful program and recording that makes us feel as if we are rediscovering this truly great music again for the first time.

Acclaimed for their life-affirming virtuosity and irresistible charm, The King’s Singers are in global demand. Their work – synonymous with the best in vocal ensemble performance – appeals to a vast international audience. They perform over 120 concerts each year, touring regularly to Europe, the United States, Asia and Australasia. The King’s Singers are admired for their musical excellence and recognized as consummate entertainers – a class act with a delightfully British sense of humor. Their generous spirit and magical ability to move audiences have remained constant since the group’s foundation in 1968.

They have premiered more than 200 new works, including landmark compositions by Luciano Berio, György Ligeti, James MacMillan, Krzysztof Penderecki, Toru Takemitsu, John Tavener and Eric Whitacre, and commissioned thrilling arrangements of everything from jazz standards to pop chart hits.

The King’s Singers are double Grammy® award-winning artists, honored in 2009 for their Signum Classics release, Simple Gifts, and again in 2012 for their contribution to Eric Whitacre’s Light & Gold album on Decca. In June 2013 they were chosen as one of only two vocal ensembles to enter the Gramophone Hall of Fame, honored for their unique discography of over 150 albums.

Highlights of the group’s 2014-15 season include: two performances in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, a Christmas performance in Washington National Cathedral; a visit to the Grand Philharmonic Hall of St. Petersburg; an invitation to perform at the American Choral Directors Association annual conference in Salt Lake City, where they will give the world premiere of a new work by Jake Heggie, and their second residential Summer School in the UK.

The HBPA King’s Singers concert is supported in part with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) – a federal agency – and KMUW – Wichita Public Radio, which is a media sponsor for this event. The HBPA series is funded in part by the cities of Hesston and North Newton, Excel Industries and Hustler Turf Equipment (Hesston), the Hesston Community Foundation, the North Newton Community Foundation, Hesston AmericInn and other area business and patrons. HBPA also receives support from the NEA and Mid-America Arts Alliance, with additional support from the NEA, foundations, corporations and individuals throughout Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas.

The Hesston-Bethel Performing Arts Series, now in its 33rd year, is a collaborative effort of Hesston College and Bethel College (North Newton) presenting five performances by world-renowned or regionally acclaimed artists each year.

by Caroline Heaney, Bucklesweet Media and Rachel McMaster, Hesston College