King’s College Choir

Short’s Sports

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Rugger Turned King’s Singer

This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper

on February 17, 1999. All rights reserved.

In a sense, Nigel Short’s prowess at rugby is directly

responsible for his becoming a singer.

There he was at London’s Royal College of Music majoring in piano

and singing in the 1980s. His rugby background was excellent. As a

sixth form student in secondary school, he had a good rugby coach,

and made it into the English national trial for the sport before he

started his musical training. His rugby skills were good enough that

as a Royal College student, he managed, through a friend of a friend,

to get a place on London University’s rugby team. (In the United

Kingdom,

just as a member of parliament need not be a resident of the district

that elects him, a member of a university rugby team need not be

enrolled

at that university.)

Rugby is a rough sport. Although as notoriously violent as American

football, rugby players wear no protective clothing. "I kept

breaking

things," Short says in a telephone interview from his home in

the London suburbs. "One season I broke my nose three times. One

of those times I broke my jaw as well. Someone was standing on my

face. I broke my fingers all the time. This kept interrupting my piano

studies." Bowing to what seemed like the inevitable, Short

narrowed

his college major down to singing.

Since 1994, Short has been a member of the King’s Singers, the six-man

a cappella ensemble with the repertoire that knows no boundaries.

The group appears at McCarter on Monday, February 22, at 8 p.m. The

program includes 16th-century English madrigals, and Spanish music

from the same period; music by South African composer Peter Louis

van Dijk; and contemporary pop music, including songs of the Beatles.

Members of the ensemble are Short and David Hurley, countertenors;

Paul Phoenix, tenor; Philip Lawson and Gabriel Crouch, baritones;

and Stephen Connolly, bass.

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King’s College Choir

The group was formed in 1968. It takes its name from having been

founded

by members of the King’s College choir at England’s Cambridge

University.

The choir’s roots go back to the 15th century, when a royal decree

provided for an ensemble of 16 boys and 14 men trained to sing

high-church

services in the college chapel. Five of the six original members of

the King’s Singers were choristers at King’s College. There have been

17 King’s Singers since the group was founded; the last of the

original

members retired in 1993. The present member of longest standing is

bass Connolly, who joined in 1988. The newest is tenor Phoenix, who

joined in 1997. The ensemble has published more than 60 recordings.

It has a website, www.kingssingers.com, and a newsletter.

"It’s like a well-oiled machine," says Short. "When

someone

new comes, there’s always a slight shift for six or eight months.

But he soon settles into the groove of learning the music, and takes

over one of the main jobs." His own entry into the King’s Singers

was a gentle affair. Both Short and baritone Lawson were designated

as members in 1994, creating what might have been a major cataclysm

because of the turnover of one-third of the membership of the

ensemble.

"The group was so well organized that it was not a problem,"

Short says. "Our predecessors announced a year ahead of time that

they would be retiring. We were appointed in July, and sang our first

concert in January. They flew us out to a couple of tours, and made

it as easy as possible. When we started doing the first concert, not

everything was new."

Each of the King’s Singers has a particular area of

responsibility. Short acts as librarian. That’s because, of all the

ensemble members, he lives closest to London, and the group’s library

is housed in the London offices of the King’s Singers management.

Short also sees to the distribution of King’s Singers CDs and sheet

music published by the ensemble. In addition, he looks after

sponsorship

arrangements for tours and master classes. He reports that he is

called

"Director of the Board of Trade" by the other King’s Singers

members, a group that hesitates to pass up an opportunity to tease.

Who’s in charge in the ensemble, I wonder. "There’s nobody who’s

in charge," Short says. "It’s a complete democracy. It works

very well. Six is the right number. Any more and it would be

impossible."

To make programming decisions, says Short, "we literally sit down

around a table and discuss it. If there’s disagreement, we keep

discussing

the matter until a compromise is made. It’s very British."

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Short’s Sports

Short was born in 1965 in Sulohill, part of Birmingham. He joined

the church choir at age seven. A choir outing when he was 15 took

him to hear the King’s Singers, and he was attracted by their close

harmony. His performance debut was in 1992 with the English National

Opera in Monteverdi’s "Orfeo."

Although rugby was prominent in Short’s life until he reached London’s

Royal College of Music, he has now found a place for other sports.

He played his last rugby game at age 21, but he’s considering playing

again. "When we were in Bermuda I heard about a festival for

veteran

rugby players. I’m thinking about it. If I don’t play now, I’ll never

play." Short’s other sports are squash, wind-surfing in the sea,

and skiing. "I would love for skiing to be the main one, but

there’s

not enough snow here," he says.

The sport club where Short plays squash is two minutes from his home

in Ealing, in suburban London. He still owns the thatched

half-timbered

house built in 1540 where he used to live. The house is 60 miles north

of London. "It’s extremely pretty," he says. "It’s on

the National Register. But it was impractical because we’re always

flying from Heathrow. I have a great arrangement now with my

pied-a-terre

in Ealing."

During the current season the King’s Singers appears in 14 countries,

including eight in Europe and three in Asia. They celebrated their

30th anniversary with a special tour of Britain in collaboration with

dynamic Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie, who gave a solo

performance

last year with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (U.S. 1, March 25,

1998). The tour was known as the Street Songs tour, reflecting the

title of a newly-released RCA Red Seal recording by the King’s Singers

and Glennie.

In a rather learned explanation, the CD liner notes explain that the

music attempts to "create a sense of the original ceremonial and

ritualistic experiences" mirrored in the street games of children,

rather than presenting the tunes in their best-known forms. Actually,

the recording is a lot of fun, and includes more than street songs.

Glennie and the King’s Singers leap-frog over each other in a

selection

of pieces that range from the propulsive and perky "Poor

Roger"

to the dreamy "In a Far Off Place." With uncanny sensitivity

"Horizons" begins with humming by the King’s Singers that

blend seamlessly with Glennie’s playing, and finally emerge as text.

Glennie plays alone in some of the pieces, revealing her impeccable

sense of rhythm and mastery of sonic subtleties; she ends her flawless

"Reaching Out" with a flourish, the fate-knocking-at-the-door

rhythm of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. The King’s Singers perform alone

in some of the pieces — including six settings of Zulu songs

developed

from various Zulu contexts by Stanley Glasser — which display

their immaculate intonation and superb musicianship.

"Working with Evelyn Glennie was a real privilege," says

Short.

"She’s a consummate performer and makes it very easy for us. When

we’re singing as an ensemble there are six slightly different versions

of the tempo. But with Glennie we only had one. She’s such a driving

force. And she’s always right."

Habitually, the King’s Singers assembles programs with

far-flung musical styles from far-flung musical periods. Changing

gears musically is not a problem for the ensemble, Short says.

"It’s

fair to say that people who join the group are pretty flexible

instinctively

and have a flair for adapting to different styles. For me pop music

is a nonentity. I don’t feel at home with it. I got a lot of help

for my Sade solo on the `Spirit Voices’ recording. [This RCA Victor

recording consists of re-settings of popular pieces originating with

the Beach Boys, Paul Simon, and others.] I used to sing with the

Tallis

Scholars so I can help others with medieval music. We’re always giving

each other helpful hints like `You can’t sing that like that!’"

Short has clearly gritted his teeth in order to convey the outrage

imbedded in the volunteered hint.

King’s Singer performances hew closely to the score. Their hallmark

is an "intuitive telepathy," wrote Rick Jones after their

appearance at the London Proms in 1997. But improvisation is not their

thing. "We’d like there to be spontaneity," says Short,

"but

because there are six of us and a lot of the music we do is very

intricate,

there’s not much room for messing around. Spontaneity, when it comes,

is a matter of performance. The only things that can change are

dynamics,

rhythm, and tempo." At first glance these three components seem

to cover all the musical choices, but they don’t. Short has to mean

that, unlike performing groups that improvise, the King’s Singers

do not wing it when it comes to melody or harmony.

"If some one takes the lead, the others will go for it," he

says about spontaneity in performance. "If something is very slow

and grinding to a halt and we’re having breathing difficulties,

somebody

will correct the tempo." He gives an example. "In Avery Fisher

Hall just before Christmas, it was the end of tour. We were highly

charged. We knew we would be going home and our performance became

a different animal."

As second countertenor in the ensemble, Short’s is the second highest

voice in the group. His vocal range is close to that of an alto.

"It

goes from the E flat an octave and a third above middle C, to the

C an octave below middle C on good day," he says. "Sometimes

I’m drafted into pieces to sing tenor or baritone if there are five

parts. I sort of wander around."

Short considers his role in the King’s Singers to be a supporting

one. "I’m a filler," he says. "I don’t do much of the

melody line. I fill in the harmony. You won’t hear me in a concert.

I don’t like the exposure that some of these guys have to deal with

day-to-day. I like to fade into background."

Still, Short solos in "Love is Stronger than Pride" on the

"Spirit Voices" recording, and I ask for an explanation of

the exception. He attributes his starring role in the piece to his

being a team player. "They couldn’t find anybody to sing the

solo,"

he says. "Normally, it would be sung by a woman’s voice. But it

was a bit too low for Hurley, [the first countertenor] and too high

for Chilcott [the tenor at the time the recording was made]".

The Short solo stands out in no way from the other pieces on the

recording.

There are no clues to give away that Short stars in the pop idiom

that he finds somewhat alien, or that he dislikes being a star.

Remarkable!

Maybe it has something to do with his learning to be a team player

on the rugby field.

— Elaine Strauss

The King’s Singers, McCarter Theater, 91 University

Place, 609-683-8000. Monday, February 22, 8 p.m.


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