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White Men Can't Sing

February 18, 2010

white.jpegIt's a common assumption that if you're a truly great singer, you can sing most anything. But this assumption of course is false. There are amazing lyrical tenors who can't do Wagner. And incredible jazz singers who can't sing folk music. For many experts, fach is everything and knowing your parameters as a vocalist is the best way to become excellent.

In the world of choral singing, however, some groups have earned a reputation for being able to sing in practically any style. The King's Singers is one such group.

But at last night's concert at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, the six-song, all male, a cappella showed that some musical styles may not fit them as well as others. The group breezed beautifully through a bunch of Italian and English madrigals by Schutz, Monteverdi, Weelkes and Bennet, and brought lushness and warmth to a performance of Saint-Saens' Saltarelle.

But the King's Singers' performance of Berkeley composer Gabriela Lena Frank's Tres Mitros de Mi Tierra (a commissioned world premiere) reminded me of hearing the Trinity College Choir from Cambridge, England, attempting gospel music at a concert at Grace Cathedral last summer. They just sounded stiff and "trained" -- they couldn't get under the skin of the music at all.

The same thing happened to the King's Singers at last night's concert: No matter how much accuracy and dexterity the vocalists brought to Frank's rhythmically complex, mystical three-movement piece about three mythical Peruvian characters, they just couldn't quite get into the swing of it. I guess these particular Brits (or maybe Anglo-Saxons in general?) are just too buttoned up to really communicate this ethnic kind of music. The piece, which offsets beautiful, delicate moments with a strident Latino pulse felt mostly quite stiff and formal.

I wonder if it would have sounded more supple if sung by a group more comfortable with Latino and/or folk idioms?

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