Bookmark is a JAPAN Forward feature that gives you long reads for the weekend. Each edition introduces one overarching thought that branches off to a wide variety of themes. Our hope is for readers to find new depths and perspectives to explore and enjoy.
Known as “the kings of a capella,” The King’s Singers like many performers around the world have adapted to the global circumstances of COVID-19. After catching up earlier this year, we sat down with group leader Julian Gregory, and baritone Chistopher Bruerton on Zoom on October 9, about their exclusive online concert especially dedicated to their Japanese fans coming up on October 24.
In addition, the vocalists talked about the circumstances leading up to the online concert, and their life during COVID-19 in the second half of the year. During the last weeks of October the group was supposed to tour Japan, kicking off their “Finding Harmony” tour, which was canceled due to the pandemic. The online concert, they explained, was their way of greeting their fans and making up for their inability to be here in person.
We asked them what to expect from the online concert, and the meaning that Japan holds for them as a whole. Excerpts of the interview follow.
Right now, you would be in Japan touring. Could you comment on that?
Julian: It’s really sad that we are not able to do the concert, and in fact in forty minutes we would have been starting the first concert of the tour in Hiroshima.
The original tour was from October 9 to October 18, starting in Hiroshima and finishing in Fukushima.
As part of the Finding Harmony year, we developed “Finding Harmony in Japan” for which we managed to commission works from two Japanese composers, which we will be premiering.
Kimigayo, with the arrangement by Chris Bruerton, is amazing and starts the concert off. There will also be Empress Emeritus Michiko’s Nemuriki no Uta, something by Tarou Takemitsu, and of course Furusato.
We were going to end the tour in Fukushima and collaborate with this wonderful local children’s choir of boys and girls. It was going to be a charity concert, the first King’s Singers charity concert ever in Japan, to contribute the proceeds to the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake.
Why have you chosen to commission two songs by Japanese composers this time?
Julian: Our latest headline project, called 'Finding Harmony', is all about the power that music has to bring people together, particularly through singing together in difficult times.
'Finding Harmony' focuses on various episodes of this happening across the world and throughout time. And of course, Japan is no exception, with its devastating natural disasters and history of atomic bombs. We therefore decided to adapt our 'Finding Harmony' concept for this Japan tour and tailor it to the title of 'Heiwa' ('Peace and Harmony'), which for us resonates so nicely with 'Reiwa', the title of the new Imperial Era, which we also celebrated in Tokyo last year.
Part of The King’s Singers' mission is to commission new music each season. And so, with the help of our Japanese advisory team, we decided to commission two new works by Japanese composers, Makiko Kinoshita and Eisuke Tsuchida.
Wherever in the world we are touring, one of the things we try to do is to offer music and spoken introductions in the local language, which we feel gets things off on the right foot and creates a deeper connection between the six of us on stage and the members of the audience, allowing for a mutually elevated musical experience.
It is much rarer for us to commission music specifically for a one-off tour, like we are doing with these two pieces. The work by Kinoshita is called 'Ashita no uta' ('Tomorrow's song') and has a wonderful message of hope for a better tomorrow, which is beautifully realized through her undulating, harmonic writing.
The work by Tsuchida is called 'Shinda onna no ko' ('The Girl from Hiroshima'). And, from the perspective of a little girl, it vividly recounts the Hiroshima atomic bomb incident 75 years ago, ending with an anti-nuclear message for the world today. We hope that these two works will be appreciated by our audiences around the world, but might perhaps strike a particular chord with our Japanese audience.
Why have you chosen Japan to be the kickoff place for the Finding Harmony tour, and one of the few countries to aim your online concert?
Julian: One of the exciting things about The King's Singers is that, because we are a partnership, the six of us encourage each other to bring onboard our personal, musical and cultural passions and interests, which we as a group can then develop and positively integrate into our concerts, recordings and touring schedule.
As is the case with Chris and his Kiwi heritage when we tour New Zealand, or Johnny and his Austrian heritage when we tour German-speaking countries, I have a family link to Japan since I am half-Japanese. So, my colleagues and I have worked very hard since I joined the group in 2014 to grow and cultivate The King’s Singers' special relationship with Japan through everything that we do.
Our Japan tour this year was one of the big highlights of our season, and so we were truly gutted when we found out that the tour had to be canceled due to COVID-19.
Our first thought was that we should somehow honor the original tour by streaming a performance from London, similar to the performances we were due to give around this time in Hiroshima, Osaka, Tokyo, Fukushima and other great Japanese cities. So, luckily, with the help of JAPAN Forward, The Sankei Shimbun, Yamaha Music London, Idagio and our amazing film crew, we've managed to put this exciting streamed concert together which is available to everyone around the world.
How does this connect to your activities during the pandemic?
Julian: The power of virtual choirs has been incredible, and reached disadvantaged people, the elderly, and those people are in millions. It’s helped to give them something in this otherwise very miserable year.
We’ve had this series of videos, which has been really successful. Particularly, the ones with a scrolling score have enabled people to participate and sing along. We got a lot of positive feedback by liking, sharing and commenting [on social media]. That has made us feel that all the work that we’ve been doing behind the scenes is not in vain, but is giving back to the community.
Christopher: We’ve found opportunities that perhaps we were not seeking before. From online concerts to online workshops, the lockdown has provided us with the opportunity of collaborating with a lot more people than in normal circumstances.
One of the latest collaborations was with Jakub Józef Orliński, who is a Polish countertenor/breakdancer. He brings the pop rock and Vivaldi Gloria in one symbiotic thing, which is incredible. We had a lovely interview with Thomas Hanson, who is a personal hero of mine.
We’ve become more accustomed to the fact that the world is more connected than we thought possible. We’ve also really embraced the online concert format, a new platform for the King’s Singers. it’s a different kind of project compared to a live concert, and it’s been interesting to explore.
How is performing online different?
Julian: Performing not in front of an audience, but a camera, it’s a different sort of engagement.
The group is quite used to audio recordings. But in those recording environments we are thinking very critically with our ears in a way that is not conducive to the most performative style of singing.
When you have an audience in front of you, you are thinking “how do we sound,” but also “how am I engaging and sending the message of this song to the person sitting right in front of me.” It’s a slightly different experience.
In a live performance things happen, reality gets in the way. In a filmed environment you would expect things to be pretty much perfect, so it’s been a challenge for us as artists to balance what we are happy with as an end product.
How have your fans been reacting?
Christopher: Because everyone is in the same position, I think people have found our engagement really meaningful. We’ve done all we can to support other artists, and there has been a real coming together from the artists community.
Julian: Particularly with singing, that seems to have gotten so much bad press recently with COVID, I think it really scared and shocked the whole choral community. In some cases [choirs] can become very doubting and depressed about whether they will ever be able to sing in a choir again in a weekly rehearsal.
We’ve had some very profound messages that have made us feel very thankful and grateful, and that what we are doing can only be a good thing. So we should keep on doing it.
Tell us more about the workshops you have been conducting?
Julian: Most recently we’ve done a series with the San Francisco girls chorus, because we met them when we were in Stanford, California last year.
We try to give them an honest insight into how we operate. We share around the various topics, tips for warming up. With zoom you can get breakout rooms, where you can go from the main room to separate spaces, and that can involve one King’s Singer with say six participants. We can then get to know them on a personal level, and get them to sing one by one, and so on.
Christopher: We are realizing that online teaching and workshops is going to be our bread and butter going forward, because it will be a while before the world goes back to normal.
For many choirs, the only thing that they’ve been doing since March are their weekly online workshops. Choirs around the world have done an amazing job at keeping their choirs going. Currently there is still very little technology out there that exists so that you can sing at the same time, without severe latency.
We’ve been working with a lot of younger people who are very into the technology, and organizations that are really smart with technology and use it to their full potential. Our job has beenーhow can we help you in your weekly rehearsals, to spice it up and to bring a fresh approach?
It’s not inconceivable that by the end of the year it will be possible to perform online at the same time, and that’s crazy.
There was quite a big project that we did together with Chorus America, in June, and we spoke to hundreds of delegates across America.
This year was supposed to be our big year for finding harmony.
What has been amazing is that finding harmony has been in motion all year around the world, online, with people singing from balconies or whatnot.
It’s not about blowing our own trumpet, but the point is that the idea of finding harmony that we devised two years ago is as relevant today as it was 800 years ago in Georgia, and I think that’s quite cool.
How has rehearsing changed for you during COVID-19?
Julian: We couldn’t rehearse until July. [It was] the first time we met [in person] in six months, it was a very significant moment. We were very conscious not to get too close to each other.
Since July, as the restrictions have eased and as the studies have come to show that singing is not any more dangerous than speaking loudly, we’ve managed to get more back to normal, closer together, which is quite important for our singing.
Most recently we’ve been rehearsing hard for our filming projects, and it feels pretty much like normal now. We stay about half a meter apart, but we are a bubble in ourselves so we are allowed to meet because we work together.
We’ve come from performing with a pillow in front of our face, then together, then socially distanced in a church, and finally to performing in a concert.
Tell us more about the one concert that you’ve done this year:
Julian: It was a concert that we were already planning to do, one of the few ones that didn’t get canceled.
The program had to be changed. Instead of the original longer program, [we did] an abbreviated shorter program, twice. [We were] very careful to enforce all social distancing, everything was sanitized, and there was a much reduced audience (about 30 percent per session).
People were allowed to take their masks off once they sat down because they were socially distanced.
Christopher: The concert in Germany came with the realization that it might be our first and last concert of the year, so we just tried to enjoy it.
There was something so normal about the whole thing: hopping on a flight, checking into a hotel. The audience was there with us, and they really were willing us on.
Knowing that we might not be doing that for a while made it bittersweet. But also, it reminds us why we do what we do. It’s given us lots of time to reflect on what is important to us, and we are probably a closer group because of this situation.
Are you planning to reschedule the Japan concerts next year?
Julian: As things stand, our concert diary next year is very full.
Because concerts are booked two or three years in advance, our agency in Japan, Tempo Primo, has told us that all the venues are full. So it’s unlikely that we will be able to do a full-scale tour. However, we are hoping that because we are going to China in October/November next year, we can perhaps squeeze in a couple of concerts in Japan, either before or after that tour.
That is our deep wish, but whether or not it does happen, it looks like our next full tour in Japan will be in December 2022, which will be our Christmas tour to Japan which will be really cool.
Do you have a message for Japanese fans?
Christopher: I really hope that they enjoy this concert, Japan is so important to us, we wanted to make sure that one of the four concerts that we are giving online was dedicated to them, and to the Japanese culture, which forms the cornerstones of the program, as well as other songs I hope you will enjoy.
We love Japan, and we can’t wait to come back. Some of my favorite touring memories are from Japan. It’s a place from which the group had a bit of a hiatus between 2011 and 2016. Therefore, having another chance to go was something we were very much looking forward to.
I’m personally a big fan of Japanese food, I can’t wait for the next opportunity to go back, and it will be all the more special because we haven’t been able to come this time.
Let’s look forward to that, I hope that everyone in Japan is safe, and we love our Japanese fans, and we can’t wait to see you soon. Enjoy the concert and please tell us what you think of it!
Interview by: Arielle Busetto