The world-renowned all-male a capella group The King’s Singers performed in front of a full house at Tokyo’s stunning St Mary’s Cathedral on Thursday, July 11, in celebration of Japan’s new Reiwa era.
The audience, which included her Imperial Highness Princess Hisako of Takamado, was awed from the moment the group stepped onstage and performed the Japanese national anthem Kimi Ga Yo. The program then wove together British royal music, a musical tribute based on the poem of Empress Emerita Michiko, The Beatles, and folk songs in a two-hour concert which kept listeners transfixed.
JAPAN Forward wanted to know what brought the King’s Singers all the way to Japan and how they managed to pull off this event. We sat down with group members Julian Gregory and Nick Ashby on July 10, the day before the concert, to learn more.
Celebrating Reiwa with Beautiful Harmony
When asked how the program was thought out, Gregory and Ashby explained that the uniting factor was the theme of celebrating the opening of the new Reiwa era with the a capella group’s own beautiful harmony.
“On behalf of The King’s Singers we would really like to congratulate Japan…. We think that Reiwa — ‘beautiful harmony’ — couldn’t be a better name for this era…. Our hopes and good wishes for the future are very much with Japan,” said Julian Gregory.
But Ashby explained further how the meaning of the new era name had significance with the group as a whole: “We love to sing music from all over the world…right back from 15th, 16th century through the present day, in as many languages as possible. We just try to find beautiful songs. So this idea of Reiwa era is something that really resonates with us as a group ethos because that is something we try to strive for at all times.”
Royal and Imperial Connections
The program reflected a tribute to both the royal family of the United Kingdom and the imperial family of Japan. But it turns out that the connections between The King’s Singers and the two countries generally are more direct than meets the eye.
As it happens, The King’s Singers originated at King’s College, Cambridge University, which was founded by Britain’s King Henry VI in 1441.
Meanwhile, Japan’s long imperial tradition going back over 1,000 years has frequently found ways of linking with British tradition. The current Emperor Naruhito, the 126th ruler on the Chrysanthemum Throne, studied abroad at Oxford, for example.
Princess Hisako of Takamado, who attended the concert on July 11, studied at Cambridge University’s Girton College, the same alma mater as The King’s Singers member Edward Button. Hence, all members of the group were surprised by her flawless English when they met her following the concert.
Prior to the concert, Gregory had expressed the incredible anticipation of the six vocalists to be performing in front of an esteemed member of the imperial family: “It’s a huge honor to perform for the Princess. And we just hope that the common language of music is one that transcends the barriers of language, and we hope that she enjoys our performance, our close harmony songs and our selection of diverse music from the U.K.”
Personal Connections and Affection for Japan
The connection with Japan is in some ways embodied in Gregory, whose mother is Japanese. He explained how he had come to Japan during holidays ever since he was a child, and even voiced an interest in living in Japan in the future.
“Half of my life was and is Japanese, I feel very strongly rooted in Japan,” he said.
The tenor, who still has family in Japan, elaborated on how his passion has rubbed off on other group members. He explained: “When we sense, when we feel each other’s interest and passions and heritage, then we all take an interest in that. So truly all six of us are genuinely honored and thrilled to be in Japan.”
The Japanese Choir and A Capella Scene
For those who grew up with TV shows such as Glee (2009) and films like Pitch Perfect (2012), it appeared that popular culture in the U.K. and the U.S. had veered towards a greater exposure to singing in general. The King’s Singers were adamant that the level of musical culture in Japan was also very high, starting right from the attitude of the audiences.
“I’d say the Japanese audiences are very attentive. They would almost be worryingly quiet during the performance, and that is because they are so deeply attuned to the music,” said Gregory.
Regarding the Japanese singing scene more generally, both Gregory and Ashby agreed on the very high level of choirs in Japan.
Ashby specifically praised the Bach Collegium, a group founded in 1990 by Masaaki Suzuki with the aim of showcasing baroque music from Japan to the world.
But he also cited the amateur choirs out there: “A few years ago I worked with some choirs in Shizuoka and I sang solos for the Mozart requiem with their choirs. It was great…and a lovely community spirit to the choir.”
Gregory added: “It’s always a pleasure to be in Japan, to experience the culture here, to share music with Japanese people who have a very deep understanding of music and the arts.”
Hopes for the Future
So what is in store next for these young minds who hope to inspire people around the world to sing?
For the immediate future, the group members are planning to continue their tour around Asia, part of their tradition of spending seven months abroad while doing an average 120 concerts a year.
Yet despite their busy schedule, the members already voiced their intention of coming back to Japan. A visibly excited Gregory explained: “We know that we will be in Japan in October next year, so it’s going to be possibly the biggest Japan tour that we’ve done in many years in terms of number of dates. We’ve been coming to Japan on tour every two years recently, and each time it seems to be bigger and more exciting, and we know  will be, and we can’t wait.”
“Watch this space!” said Ashby, laughing.
In passing, the two members voiced a wish to perform a karaoke competition with their fans — another tribute to the high level of choral singing in this country.
Fans might be in for a slightly unorthodox a capella event in 2020. In the meantime, make sure to keep watching this space for further information on The King’s Singers future Japan tours.
Author: Arielle Busetto, Mizuki Okada