Japan is the second stop on The King’s Singers’ digital tour

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various, The Kings Singers – Heiwa: Yamaha Piano Hall, London. First streamed on IDAGIO’s Global Concert Hall on 25.10.2020. (RP)

The King’s Singers at Yamaha Piano Hall, London

Traditional Japanese – ‘Kimigayo’ (arr. Bruerton), ‘Furusato’ (arr. Lawson)
Makiko Kinoshita – ‘Ashita no uta’ (World premiere)
Henry Purcell – ‘I was glad’
William Byrd – ‘O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth’
Eisuke Tsuchida – ‘The Girl from Hiroshima’ (World premiere)
Urmas Sisask – ‘Heliseb väljadel’
Traditional Georgian – ‘Tsintskaro’
Harry Dixon Loes – ‘This little light of mine’ (arr. Gibbs)
Tōru Takemitsu Handmade Proverbs
Empress Michiko – ‘Nemunoki Lullaby’ (arr. Gregory)
John Lennon/Paul McCartney – ‘And I love her’ (arr. Chilcott)
Queen – ‘Seaside rendezvous’ (arr. Hart)

The King’s Singers were supposed to be touring Japan this month, but instead are sticking closer to home due to the pandemic. Not being able to travel there, however, provided the usually peripatetic ensemble the opportunity of bringing the music of Japan to a far wider audience in the second concert of their digital tour. Heiwa, which means peace and harmony, is currently streaming on IDAGIO.

Japanese choral music, although rooted in Western traditions, has its own sensibilities and musical colors, which these six singers explored with their customary attention to detail and zeal. The group premiered two works that had been commissioned for the tour, Makiko Kinoshita’s ‘Ashita no uta’ and Eisuke Tsuchida’s ‘The Girl from Hiroshima’. Kinoshita has won awards for her orchestral works and is one of Japan’s leading choral composers. In ‘Ashita no uta’, her swirling harmonies reflect the earth spinning in its orbit around the sun with its promise of a new day. It’s music of hope and optimism.

Composer and pianist Eisuke Tsuchida employed biting dissonances and haunting harmonies in his setting of the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet’s 1956 poem, ‘The Girl from Hiroshima’. First set to music by the American rock group The Byrds in 1966, the poem is the reflections of a girl who was killed when the first-ever nuclear bomb was dropped on Japan on 5 August 1945. It ends with a plea that bombs shouldn’t be dropped on little girls who will never grow up to eat candies. Tenderness and regret were intermingled in the gentlemen’s performance of this somber, exquisite work.

Tōru Takemitsu’s settings of four haiku, Handmade Proverbs, are in a much lighter vein. One of Japan’s leading twentieth-century composers, Takemitsu composed music in the Western tradition while retaining a distinct Japanese identity. Handmade Proverbs, to texts by the surrealist poet Shuzo Takiguchi, have a witty, pop sensibility that is particularly pronounced in the first of the four, ‘Your eyes’, with its tinge of eroticism in the observation that there are two of everything on a woman’s body, including her breasts.

The concert opened with ‘Kimigayo’, whose lyrics have the distinction of being the oldest and shortest of any country’s national anthem. There was a particularly British feel to ‘Furusato’, a folk song that tells what a person working in a distant land feels for the hills and fields of a childhood home. Its gently descending musical lines were particularly effective in portraying the nostalgia inherent in the simple song.

The final Japanese selection was ‘Nemunoki Lullaby’ in a setting by Julian Gregory, who sings tenor with the ensemble. The poem was written by the Dowager Empress Michiko when she was a high school student. Gregory, who is half English, half Japanese, carried most of the water in providing introductions to the program and the works in Japanese. In this tender song about a fragrant silk tree that grew in the town where the former empress lived as a child, he was also the clear-voiced soloist.

The gentlemen included three selections from their recently released recording, Finding Harmony. Urmas Sisask was one of the Estonians who fought for freedom and national identity through song. Sisask was a devout Catholic, and his ‘Heliseb väljadel’ is a hymn to the Virgin Mary, replete with the sound of ringing bells. A traditional Georgian love song, ‘Tsintskaro’, was particularly effective for the straight tone that the men employed, underpinned by a cavernous drone from the bass. Stacey V. Gibbs’ arrangement of an American gospel favorite, ‘This little light of mine’, is bouncy and upbeat, and the six singers dispatched it with lightness and sparkle.

The rest of the program was devoted to music at the core of The King’s Singers’ repertoire. Purcell’s ‘I was glad’ and Byrd’s ‘O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth’ were sung with the expected purity and polish, while two pop hits closed out the concert. First came a particularly inventive setting by Bob Chilcott of a Lennon/McCartney favorite, ‘And I love her’, followed by Queen’s ‘Seaside rendezvous’ for which they pulled out their kazoos.

Rick Perdian

To listen to Heiwa on the IDAGIO Global Concert Hall, click here.

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