An a cappella love letter to NYC

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The King’s Singers from England will celebrate their 50th anniversary with a concert at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola


  • The King's Singers mid-song, getting ready for their 50th anniversary tour. Photo: Marco Borggreve

In the middle of a worldwide tour celebrating their 50th anniversary, The King’s Singers, England’s original a cappella superstars, will arrive on the UES on Sunday, January 21 for a very special one-time-only concert at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola. Part of the church’s “Sacred Music in a Sacred Space” series, the King’s Singers will perform a program that reflects the group’s Christian roots and how these sacred values manifest today. The concert will honor St. Ignatius Church and is a also a love letter to the city of New York.

Established in 1968 by a group of six graduates from King’s College Cambridge, the King’s Singers gained attention not only for the clarity of their sound and the complexity of their vocal arrangements, but also for the diversity of their repertoire. The Singers record and arrange everything from religious music from the Middle Ages to Renaissance-era madrigals to contemporary classical and pop music.

This diversity of material has kept the group relevant for five decades. Though not always credited, the consistent popularity of the King’s Singers was one of the factors that kept a cappella so popular across American college campuses and helped give birth to the current a cappella boom. From “Glee” to the Pentatonix to the nearly $100 million gross of “Pitch Perfect 3,” a cappella is truly having a moment in popular culture. One could even think of the King’s Singers as the original boy-band, pairing dashing good looks with perfect harmonies and a deep sense of musical history.

Our Town got the chance to chat about the ensemble with the King’s Singers only bass, Johnny Howard. In 2009, Howard was a recent graduate of New College at Oxford with a degree in classics, living in London and working in advertising when he was approached by his predecessor in the group to audition. Since then, Howard says, his life has gone in unexpected directions, bringing him to New York over a dozen times, and allowing him to learn a ton of music, both sacred and secular.

Epitomizing this bridging of the modern with the classical, of England with America, is “To Stand in This House,” an original piece commissioned for the King’s Singers by the New York-based contemporary classical composer Nico Muhly, whose opera “Two Boys” premiered at the Met Opera in 2013. The new piece fuses classical texts from medieval England with contemporary texts about modern life by famous alumni of King’s College, including Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith. Howard even quoted Smith, from her essay “On Optimism and Despair,” describing the overarching question of the concert as, “how do we as a society strive to be better and make the world a better place?”

Howard calls Muhly’s piece “a marriage of optimism from the past and reality in the present” and says that it “marries our sacred beginnings and our reality of the present.” When asked about the process of working with a living composer on an original work, Howard said that the Singers were interested in knowing how their group of six voices could help a composer to bring his ideas to life.

Howard’s journeys around the world have shown him that people of any country or culture want to sing together without accompaniment, because they “love singing regardless of religion — irrespective of personal faith.” The magic of the King’s Singers lies in their ability to transcend the sacred and the secular, the classical and the new.

Despite a touring schedule that brings them to all corners of the globe, Howard insists that NYC holds a special place in the group’s hearts. This will be reflected in their concert at St. Ignatius Loyola, where the Singers will highlight the best of New York’s composers, including works by Michael Richie Benner, Howard Arlen and Paul Simon, among others. Howard ended our chat with a shoutout to New York audiences for being filled with people who “really think and engage and say what they feel” and who “want to be challenged.”

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