Last year the six-member all-male a cappella ensemble, the King’s Singers, celebrated its 40th anniversary. That means that the total number of man-years logged by the group came to 240. With only 20 persons having sung with the King’s Singers since its inception, the average length of tenure is 12 years. Replacements are rare.
This year Timothy Wayne-Wright joins the group as a second counter-tenor, and plunges into an American tour with the ensemble after exactly two performances in the UK behind him. It is his third visit to the U.S. He sang in New York City in concerts in 2007 and 2008 as a member of other vocal groups. U.S. 1 was the first of the U.S. media to talk to him as a KS member.
The other members of the ensemble and their years with KS are counter-tenor David Hurley (18 years), tenor Paul Phoenix (15 years), baritone Philip Lawson (15 years), baritone Christopher Gabbitas (four years), and bass Stephen Connolly (20 years). Notice the distribution of voices: two counter-tenors, one tenor, two baritones, and a bass. That provides the group with soprano, alto, tenor, bass, and then some.
The sextet comes to McCarter Theater on Monday, February 23. They first appeared at McCarter in 1983, a quarter of a century ago. McCarter describes the programming of KS as traversing genres from Renaissance motets to the Beatles, and madrigals to Zulu lullabies. The ensemble makes a point of never repeating a program in the same venue. It gives about 100 concerts a year and is away from home for more than six months annually, mostly in two-week stints.
The Princeton program gives Wayne-Wright an opportunity to re-live history. In a telephone interview from his hotel room in Cincinnati, he says that the concert is based on the King’s Singers’ latest CD, “Romance du Soir,” released on February 12. Wayne-Wright’s predecessor, Robin Tyson, sings on the CD. Wayne-Wright sings the concert version of the CD for the 10-city American tour, which began in Ohio and gets as far west as Utah.
The music ranges over six centuries, from Ludwig Senfl (born 1486) and a smattering of 16th century compositions to a 2001 piece American Libby Larsen wrote for the King’s Singers. Romantic pieces from France, Germany, and England are included.
The King’s Singers does not announce upcoming vacancies and solicit candidates. If they held open auditions, they would be flooded with applicants. Instead, they devise a short list of aspirants and invite them to audition. According to the KS website, “The audition is all about making the same sounds as the people around you and displaying flexibility. The candidate is the subject of intense pressure as he is tested and asked to sing in many different ways. It is also important to work out what a person is like socially — with seven months of the year on the road it is very important we can all get on.”
“The first round went well,” Wayne-Wright remembers. “It required singing in an alien way, this soft, breathy way where you’re just blending in. I thought, ‘This is a lot of fun, but they won’t ask me back.’ But I got through to the second round. It was grueling. It was not just singing notes, it was keeping the audience entertained by actions and talking. They tested me on an Irish song, where I had to come up with an Irish brogue and with actions that would reach out to the audience.”
What sort of a person did KS seek when they chose Wayne-Wright? “They were looking for someone in their mid-20s to bring a new take on it all,” Wayne-Wright says. “I’m 26. Singing over 100 pieces a year, it’s possible to go on autopilot. Even in four or five years like [baritone] Christopher [Gabbitas] you can go on automatic. It’s important to have an outsider’s point of view.
‘They wanted to hear from me how they sound from the audience’s point of view,” Wayne-Wright continues. “In King’s Singers, from day one you’ve got 1/6th of the say. They’re willing to listen to me as much as to [bass] Stephen [Connolly], who’s been in the group 20 or 21 years. It’s very fair.
“They all make it very easy,” Wayne-Wright says. “I’ve had two performances with King’s Singers so far. The first was a private gig in London, and then there was a performance in Hereford on January 29. It feels like friends, not colleagues. They’re willing to skim down the repertoire to what I know.” Wayne-Wright is surprisingly open at mentioning his colleagues and their qualities; he seems to have absorbed them into his existence.
“They gave me a bundle of music, and said, ‘Learn!’ Every day I learn three or four songs by memory. I’m using an iPod. All the King’s Singers’ CDs are on it. [Baritone] Philip [Lawson] has a photographic memory; he looks at music and knows it. I don’t.
“The most taxing thinking about becoming one of the King’s Singers is the sheer volume of stuff you have to know by memory,” Wayne-Wright says. “A close second is making that King’s Singers sound. You have to stop thinking about big solo lines and think about singing ensemble, where you don’t want to be heard. You’ve got to blend in entirely. Every member of King’s Singers comes from a background of solo performance. Being slotted into an ensemble is really tough.”
Wayne-Wright characterizes the second counter-tenor part as one “where you have to be very versatile. The second counter-tenor part is harmony, rather than melody; it’s probably more difficult to learn than melody.
“You have to slot in just underneath David. In many pieces I have to sing as high as David does. It’s difficult to match his high E’s. That was a big part of the audition — singing high E’s. My vocal range goes from the F below middle C to the E above high C [almost three octaves]. David’s span is greater than mine.
“It’s possible to expand the range of your voice. I’m not the only one in the group who has singing lessons. The voice is ever-changing. I’ve added a note or two on either side of my range since 2007.”
Wayne-Wright singles out, as a mentor, Timothy Travers-Brown, with whom he won a scholarship for study as a graduate student at England’s Trinity College London. “Tim taught me primarily about opera. But King’s Singers is not a world apart from opera. Opera and King’s Singers sound different, but in terms of action and staging they’re the same. It’s a matter of entertaining the audience, and giving everything to every note.”
Wayne-Wright was born in Chelmsford, about 30 miles northeast of London, to chiropodist parents. His dad is now retired; his mom continues her career. His was a musical family, he says. His dad’s piano studies took him to a level just short of conservatory, and he performed extensively.
“My mom played guitar,” he says. “She was very keen for me to start music.” At age seven Wayne-Wright became a boy chorister in the local cathedral. Travers-Brown, his future mentor, was an adult member of the choir. “I started piano at seven and began clarinet in my teens. But it was always singing that I loved more than the instruments.” His sister, Nicola, five years his senior, played flute. She now lectures in accountancy.
Wayne-Wright graduated from Goldsmith’s College, University of London, in 2004 and earned a postgraduate diploma in vocal studies from Trinity College London. As a member of the Old Royal Naval College Choir, he soloed in Handel’s “Messiah” and Vivaldi’s “Gloria” and “Stabat Mater.” He was a lay clerk at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, as well as at the Rochester Cathedral and St. Paul’s Cathedral. A lay clerk, he explains, is a singing man. At St. George’s Chapel there are 12 lay clerks, three each soprano, alto, tenor and bass, in addition to a choir of 20 to 25 boys.
“The first time I heard the King’s Singers was as a child in the Chelmsford Cathedral,” Wayne-Wright says. “I was taken aback by six guys singing in the Cathedral Festival, entertaining hundreds of people night after night.
“Their tuning was bang on. I always had a good ear for that sort of thing. I don’t have perfect pitch, but it’s close. [Tenor] Paul [Phoenix] has the most perfect pitch in the King’s Singers. When a group is doing as many performances as King’s Singers, sometimes the intonation goes out. If everyone’s intonation goes out all at once, it’s not that serious.”
Comfortable as Wayne-Wright is with the King’s Singers, he does not yet carry his full share of the ensemble’s work. Each of the singers has a specific responsibility in the management of the ensemble, but for the time being Wayne-Wright is exempt. “Right now, my main responsibility is to learn the repertoire,” he says. “In a few months I’ll have a specific assignment. For now, though, learning the bundle of music is my task.”
The King’s Singers, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. Monday, February 23, 8 p.m. A cappella vocal ensemble in eclectic concert. $39 to $48. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.