By Jeff Maisey

Since the late 1960s, The King’s Singers — hailing from King’s College, Cambridge in England — have made Christmastime special by performing ancient carols from the Renaissance period and then later incorporating a diverse array of modern holiday season selections

In advance of their three performances — December 14 at Williamsburg Presbyterian Church, December 16 at River Road Baptist Church in Richmond, and December 17 at Norfolk’s Christ & St. Luke’s Church — present by the Virginia Arts Festival, I connected with King’s Sinders’ First Countertenor Patrick Dunachie to learn more about the current tour. 

Now that the United Kingdom once again has a king, does the occasion provide any special meaning or talking points for the Kings Singers? 

Patrick Dunachie: It certainly does! Originally formed at King’s College in Cambridge, our group is indirectly named after the 15th century king, Henry VI. But now that a modern-day king sits on the throne, the name seems more constitutionally relevant for the first time in our 55-year history. On a practical level, the beautiful coronation service this year — and Charles’ love of choral music — has inspired us to create a new concert programme called “Long Live the King,” centred around music written for coronations (including this one). We will begin performing that programme in 2024, and we have even sent a draft of it to His Majesty’s private secretary for approval.

Why is six the set number of singers?

Patrick Dunachie: Essentially, by accident! The original members began this journey as a group of six friends (with an unusual assortment of voice parts) who sang together after university for fun and to make some pocket money. Since that time, the number of singers and the voice parts have remained the same. Only the name changed a few times; we narrowly avoided a long latin name, and in the late 1960s, a possible name change to The King’s Swingers! But there’s something that seems magical now in the number and the spread of voices and we’re unlikely to change it!

From your recent travels around the globe, what were some of your most memorable performances and why?

Patrick Dunachie: There are truly so many to choose from. I could choose the moment when the audience stood up and joined in with us as we sang a poignant Estonian anthem in Tallinn; it could be when we sang for His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, and former Prime Minister Theresa May, and Succession actor Brian Cox at a charity event in a royal palace last month; it could be singing music by the Hungarian composers Ligeti and Kodaly to a packed audience in Budapest in October; or it could be singing the Japanese national anthem for Princess Takamado (and then later visiting her for tea at the Imperial Palace) in Tokyo. But honestly, every concert of the c.100 we do each year has some magical element to it, and it’s not always the glamorous bits. A small concert in (for example) a church in rural Germany, where we are on top form and the audience is engaged and electrified, can be some of the most fulfilling work we do.


Why is America such an important market for the Kings Singers? 

Patrick Dunachie: Ever since our first major tour to the USA in the 1980s, America has been a home-from-home . The guy who promoted us on that first tour – Ken Fischer – is still a dear friend, and chair of our Global Foundation (which is a 501c3 in the USA), and the market really opened up for us from that point. For British musicians, there is a mythical status to ‘cracking’ America and becoming popular there. And we were incredibly lucky that the Americans (particularly, it must be said, in the East coast and the DC area) took us into their hearts and homes and have been a wonderful and loyal audience for us over successive generations since the 1980s. Oh, also: Applebee’s buffalo wings are reason enough on their own to return multiple times a year.


Christmastime is a magical period when it comes to European musical compositions. Would you say this is especially true for vocal music and why?

Patrick Dunachie: On a basic level, Christmas is one of the central Christian festivals. And vocal music has been a central part of Christian worship for almost 2000 years. So it makes sense that a huge canon of choral music has emerged out of the Christian festival over centuries. But on a cultural level, Christmas is also a time of community, family and cohesion, and singing together. Carols singers on doorsteps; folk singers in pubs; church choirs lit by candles; family singalongs at home; jazz crooners piping through record players: these are all musical pillars of the Christmas season, they all bring people together in joy, and they all provide a rich tapestry for us to explore in our varied programming.


William Byrd was composing during the time of Shakespeare. Of his pieces that you are scheduled to perform, which were composed (if any) during his tenure at Lincoln Cathedral, as Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, and/or following his conversion to Catholicism?  Are there noticeable or subtle differences between the three periods of his compositional life?

Patrick Dunachie: I think there are clear differences in Byrd’s work as he matured and moved into the centre of English life at the royal court, and then out again into the countryside as a recusant (secret) Catholic in the reign of Elizabeth I and then James I. He went from youthful experimentation with form and harmony, to highly-adaptable with the demands of being a court musician, and then into musical maturity in his later chapter. None of the motets we’re including in this programme are from his early life; the earliest is Vigilate – which he wrote in his 40s but which does show some of his earlier flamboyance. Rorate caeli and O magnum mysterium show a more mature and disciplined Byrd, and come from 1605 and 1607 respectively. Byrd died in 1623, and this year – 400 years on – we’re enjoying the chance to pay homage to the great man and his music.


Spanning the centuries, youve included the Disney classic When You Wish Upon a Star.”  Why do the melody and lyrics connect with audiences?

Patrick Dunachie: As with so much Disney music, these lyrics are filled with hope and positivity. The opening line goes ‘When a star is born, they say that if you make a wish some day (as dreamers do), something good will come to you..’ – this sets the tone for an optimistic song. It’s also one of the older Disney songs, so has become part of our shared cultural memory over decades. And to add to that, at Christmas time there is a beautiful symbiosis in the image of a star appearing in the sky. It was also the perfect track to help us name our Disney album which we released earlier this year.


I cant imagine ever tiring of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” In your view, what makes this ancient melody so timeless?

Patrick Dunachie: The construction of this carol is certainly very satisfying — both for listeners and singers. I think part of the reason is the ‘modal’ feel in the melody: as with many Christmas carols, the musical scale it uses is more associated with folk than classical music. But also there is a lovely feature in the structure: the opening phrase (which repeats) is quite a simple scale up and down five or six notes, in a simple rhythm. Then the next phrase (‘To save us all from Satan’s power’..) lifts us out of that 6 note scale in to the top end of our voices, like the sun coming out. And then finally, the chorus (‘O tidings of comfort and joy’) adds more energetic and unusual rhythms. So the effect is a journey where the excitement and interest evolves gradually through each the verse. For us, we love singing it because our arrangement of it includes a mash-up with Dave Brubeck’s jazz classic ‘Take Five’ — so we’re having to by rhythmically on our game from the very first measure!


Norwegian Ola Gjeilo is a modern composer who channels the past as heard on Northern Lights,” which is included in your repertoire.  Im wondering if you can speak to the inclusion of his work in your program?

Patrick Dunachie: Norway — for those who haven’t yet been — is really very cold! In its long winters, the Norwegian  landscape is dramatic: snowy, tree-covered, and in some parts lit by the gentle glow of the Northern Lights (or aurora borealis). This cinematic landscape and atmosphere is captured really vividly in Ola Gjeilo’s music, as it is in the music of many older Norwegian choral composers such as Edvard Grieg. So although the piece is not overtly festive, the atmosphere it creates is beautiful, and we think Ola’s sense of sweeping melody and rich harmony will appeal to audiences on this Christmas tour.


Do the current members of The Kings Singers have a joint/collective favorite work on the program? 

Patrick Dunachie: I don’t think I could claim there’s a joint favorite. We all have our individual tastes and preferences, and also from night to night, one’s mood can dictate what is most enjoyable to sing. I think for all of us, there is a special place in our hearts for Once in Royal David’s city, which opens the programme. We have all sung this since being young children, and it forms an important part of the King’s College carol service which is at the heart of Christmas culture in the UK. Speaking personally, though, I’m in love with the music of William Byrd and can’t wait to sing his lesser known Advent motet Rorate caeli to audiences around the USA.