California music listeners were blessed with a rare opportunity to hear two internationally renowned vocal ensembles share a unique body of work that, for the most part, is equally rare to hear, at least in live performance, because the potential pitfalls are numerous. But far from witnessing any feared vocal or ensemble hazards, those of us in the audience experienced the rather odd, “other-worldly” musical sensation of almost too much perfection, if that seems possible. The glorious but clear acoustics of San Jose’s grand Cathedral Basilica of St Joseph make it a perfect venue for this kind of music. The beautifully conceived and balanced program (alternating and combining the two different ensembles, repeatedly) was of the perfect length, making each half of the concert seem to fly by in a rather “unearthly” time frame without connection to a man-made clock.

The King's Singers © Chris O'Donovan
The King's Singers
© Chris O'Donovan

For The King’s Singers, this was the final concert of a lengthy American tour, so physically and psychologically that may have been the reason for their lack of emotive presence or energy coming across to the audience. To their immense credit, though, that possible tiredness didn’t impact their aural focus, mental concentration or musical skills, nor dampen their uncanny blend, vocal precision, inhuman intonation and breath control, or their perfect sense of balance and ensemble – at every moment, and in every piece: perfection, as if listening to a CD recording combining many perfect takes in a perfect acoustic. The effect was as if one were hearing a “virtual reality” performance and we were watching avatars for each of these six incredible vocalists. But then that illusion would be broken when a loud truck or motorcycle outside would repeatedly rev its engine while stopped at a traffic light, or audience members would fail at controlling their winter coughs. And then the much larger ensemble, The Choral Project, would reappear onstage, either to join The King's Singers or to perform their own solo numbers, and a whole new sense of life and human vitality would fill the domed, circular space.   

The Choral Project is an internationally renowned 54-member ensemble that was founded in 1996 by its Artistic Director, Daniel Hughes. They have won top prizes in numerous choral festivals worldwide and they continue to tour the globe to rave reviews, sharing vocal traditions of all cultures and languages. The singers all have “day jobs”, ranging from scientists to music teachers, but they are an extremely enthusiastic, hard-working and disciplined lot, learning their scores with such overwhelming confidence that many of them perform the entire programs (which always include several songs written and performed in relatively obscure languages) from memory. Their unison is unquestionable but it is not a boring uniformity – each of the 54 members exudes personality and creates a connection with the audience. Daniel Hughes worked his traditional magic on Tuesday night, eliciting from his large group of stellar vocalists a precision of attacks and cut-offs, unearthly blend, balance of parts, purity of sound and range of colors that completely matched The King's Singers.

© The Choral Project
© The Choral Project

And indeed, the pieces on the program that combined the two groups left the greatest impression: High Flight by Bob Chilcott (a former member of The King's Singers, and a deservedly world-renowned composer), In Pace by Rene Clausen, The Stolen Child by Eric Whitacre (an eerily evocative work for two choirs, exploring Irish mythology) and Irish Blessing by Daniel Hughes. All four of those works were created by composers born after 1952, and many other contemporary composers were featured in the solo sections performed by each of the two ensembles: The King’s Singers shared Horizons, a deeply moving work (lamenting the extermination of the San bushmen in Africa), by Dutch composer Peter Louis van Dijk, and another song by Bob Chilcott; The Choral Project sang linguistically difficult and impressive works by Juris Karlsons (Latvia ) and Vaclovas Augustinas (Lithuania ). Other periods of music (1532-1986) were explored in a set of short spiritually-themed songs performed by The King's Singers (including some African-American spirituals, which admittedly sounded rather incongruous when delivered in precise British accents and classically-shaped phrases, despite the interesting arrangements).

My favorite work of this particular program was the opening piece, High Flight. The text is a combination of poems for pilots, written by Henry Vaughan (1621-95) and John Gillespie Magee (1922 -41). Composer Bob Chilcott (b.1955) did a stupendous job devising sound combinations and vocal techniques that perfectly mirrored the text, evoking bursts of gentle light and energy, tumbling sounds and phrases, air and voices that “wheeled and soared” as the text proclaimed, then little dancing footfalls of sound in rhythmically patterned steps, now rising up to a vocally “burning blue”: both audience and singers seemed to literally “touch the face of God” as the poem proclaimed at the end, through hands shaped of glorious sound, not flesh.

Daniel Hughes is to be given tremendous credit for yet again devising and directing a unique program that was a complete musical offering. His Irish Blessing (combining the two ensembles with yet a third “guest” choir from the nearby university, where The King's Singers had kindly given a master class earlier in the day), said it all. The world is truly blest to have sound, and singers, and these two tremendous choral groups, to enrich our ears and our lives.