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'Pops Has Always Been There' : King's Singers: The Medium Is Song

September 10, 1986|MARC SHULGOLD

The King's Singers have spent 18 years straddling the fence between serious and not-so-serious music. Through several personnel changes--and despite the heady success of briskly selling classical and pops LPs, plus frequent TV appearances--the English vocal sextet's members have remained remarkably free of identity crises.

Others have not been so fortunate.

"Once when we were on Johnny Carson, he introduced us as the King Sisters," countertenor Jeremy Jackman recalled with a wry grin. "Our names are quite similar, I suppose. It's happened quite often, so we're used to it."

Jackman and his cohorts have also grown accustomed to those who express puzzlement at a group rigorously schooled in the delicate art of the Renaissance madrigal, but perfectly at home in pop ditties by James Taylor or Simon and Garfunkel.

Versatility, however, comes as naturally as breathing to the singers, who make their Hollywood Bowl debut under Philharmonic auspices tonight. In town not long ago for a concert in Pasadena (plus a guest appearance on "The Tonight Show"), Jackman and bass Colin Mason explained how, as Jackman put it, "pops has always been there."

Lighter fare was a regular fixture of the singers' formal training as choral scholars at Cambridge and Oxford. "We would sing folk songs, Irving Berlin, almost anything," said Jackman. There was, in fact, a serious purpose to such diversions--besides unintentionally preparing them for life in the cross-over market. "Any choral singer has to be able to sight-read the legs off a donkey," Jackman explained. "After that, you know how good you are."

Mason, at 27 the youngest in the group, recalled the fiercely competitive postgraduate life in London. "Most of us left the universities with no idea of what we would do. Choral scholars were there to provide male voices for the local choruses. But there were only so many positions open. I got a job as a cashier at the cinema."

Jackman, seven years Mason's senior, began teaching high school. Though London boasts a thriving choral scene--three cathedrals support full-time professional choirs--competition was fierce, "particularly for countertenors." By singing part-time with the BBC Northern Singers, he "finally got an inkling I could earn a living at it."

By the time Jackman and Mason joined the King's Singers (in 1980 and '82, respectively), the group had established itself as a popular concert attraction, after surviving similarly lean early years. As Mason points out, "In the beginning they were singing to the wrong audience--particularly on visits to America. Everything was strictly classical."

Jackman agrees. "When we discovered television and started doing fun things like with the Boston Pops or 'The Tonight Show,' people started coming around."

Both singers dismissed the suggestion that such mass exposure can create a misleading image. The group, after all, is not an a cappella pop band. "People who see us on the Carson show maybe have never heard a madrigal," Mason pointed out. "That can work to our advantage. Since we have built up an element of trust, we can sneak in an early work or something written for us by Ned Rorem or such." (Curiously, the last "Tonight Show" visit lacked even the remotest hint of anything "serious.")

Jackman seemed more concerned about audience members who develop an impression of the sextet through its records. "Pop stars perform live to boost their record sales, but we're the other way around. We're all about performing live. The records are simply mementos."

The bottom line of the group's popularity, he theorized, has little to do with pops-vs.-classical repertory or recorded-vs.-live exposure. Whether the material is early English and Italian madrigals, recently commissioned works or Beatles songs--all of which will appear on the agenda tonight--the medium is the message.

"Anyone can admire a trumpet player," Jackman said. "But you admire him from a distance. Almost anyone can sing, even if it's just in the shower. And that creates a common ground."

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