November 1998


This Saturday I ushered a concert by the King’s Singers, a six-male vocal group from Britain. Notice that the name of the group isn’t the Queen’s Singers, or the King Singers, or the King’s Sisters. I think the name came from the King’s College in Cambridge where the group was formed exactly 30 years ago. (BTW, I got all the information of the artists from the program that we hand out to patrons for free. I didn’t know anything before reading it!)

The King’s Singers is probably the most prestigious small-scale vocal group in the world. Why? Simply because I’ve never ushered a show that’s so sold-out! My section is the far left end of the main floor from row V to Z, numbered from some 20s to 40s, and there’s NO empty seat!!!

The concert is obviously geared toward American audience, with NO medieval sacred chorus but some secular songs instead (but it made no difference to my falling-asleep at all. BTW, I couldn’t help falling asleep during ANY show, with only one exception when Jennifer and I went to a concert together, but I wasn’t ushering then).

And they sang some Beatles’ songs at the end of the concert. And they kept making a lot sexual innuendos during their introduction to the songs. And they made some funny performance during some songs. And they imitated Ray Charles’ style of grunt-like singing in some songs. And … There’re so many things that are unpleasant to think about, but very pleasant to listen to! (See I’ve quite become a stupid American in some sense.)

I can imagine their concert in any European country would be: A lot of sacred chants, no tickling performance, no politically incorrect statements, no Beatles, … It’ll much more likely to be hailed by critics, but I would probably snore through all of it!

Anyway, it’s a fun concert and their voice is just heavenly perfect. It’s probably because they’ve been together for 30 years, so that their voices just BECOME perfect in harmony. There’re one bass, two baritones, one tenor and two countertenors. The countertenors only sing with “faked voice”, whose range is that of mezzo-soprano, and is really heavenly pure (probably with only few harmonics). I used to hate “faked voice” in songs like Bee Gees’, even some of Queen’s, just because it sounds fake. But those countertenors’ voice simply fascinated me.

Here’s a list of their songs:

1. Some Renaissance Madrigals

2. Some English folk songs, like the Green Sleeves:

2 | 4 – 5 | 6. 76 | 5 – 3 | 1. 23 | 4 – 2 | 2. #12 | 3 – #1 | 6 …
– – – – .

They said the song was written by King Henry V(?), the father of Queen Elizabeth I.

3. Some Romanticism songs

4. A modern piece specially commissioned for them called “Time Piece”. It mocks the story of Genesis, and Adam and Eve expelled out of the Garden of Eden. At the beginning they made a great variety of strange noise just like some meaningless electronic music!!! Then there’s a funny God, and he created everything. Then Adam had a watch which is shock-proof, water-proof, … and they started making all kinds of ticking sounds, even including the coo-coo of a singing clock! So the God got mad for the noise and just throw them out of heaven.

5. Some pop songs of the 60’s and 70’s. Three are the Beatles’: Penny Lane, Honeypie, Obladi-oblada (encore). They’re not very interesting ‘cos they’re simply implementing the same arrangements by their voices.

The second and last encore was the famous Irish tune:

7 1 2 | 3 – – 2 | 3 6 5 3 | 2 1 6 – | – 1 3 4 | 5 – – 6 | 5 3 1 3 | 2…
. .

They called it “Danny Boy”, but I remember playing a four-hand piano version of the song with the name “Londonery Air” with my cousin (for Candy: That’s Li Jin who’s in DC!).

Another conclusion: If the King’s Singers comes to your town, check them out!

One of the few cultural-significant venues (original: buildings) here in Champaign-Urbana is the Krannert Center of Performing Arts. It’s a great building with four great theaters in it. A lot world-class shows come out frequently, like Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Itzaac Perlman, Russian National Ballet, etc.

As some of you may know, I’ve been an usher in KCPA ever since I came here. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to usher any of the great show I mentioned above :-((((, but I did ushered a lot cool shows. The most recent two seem to be among the best.

Last Friday I ushered a concert by Nigel Kennedy, one of the top living violinist. But probably he’s most known for his eccentric punky appearance. He showed up in the concert in a loose suit, long crinkled shirt and long silk scarf inside, tip-tap shoes, and his trademark punky hair: nothing on the sides and a bush of flame-shape hair in the middle. He wavered on alternating foot whenever he’s not playing, and he clutched his hand and yeahed after each piece as if he just scored a goal in the English Super League.

Kennedy studied at the Sir Yehudi Menuhin School where child violin prodigies usually go, and then Juilliard School where adult prodigies usually go. He has recorded and performed classical music successfully for almost 20 years, among which his recording of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” was in the “Guinness Book of Records” as one of the biggest selling classical records of all time. My mother once watched a video of Kennedy playing a violin concerto by Brahms, her favorite composer, and her comment is “zhen4 le”.

But what I heard in his concert wasn’t any of the classical concertos or anything like that. The title of the concert is “Structures, Not Strictures”. The performed pieces include Bartok’s Sonata for Solo Violin, Bach’s Adagio and Fugue from Sonata No.3 in C Major, and — the weirdest thing of all, SEVEN songs by Jimi Hendrix(!!!) rearranged by Kennedy. He also played in a weird order: Bartok’s first two movements, then 2 songs of Jimi, then Bartok’s last two movements, then 2 songs of Jimi again. After intermission, Bach’s piece, then 3 songs of Jimi. Four songs of Jimi are from his milestone album “Are You Experienced?” (it stayed on top-100 album chart for 2 years), and one of them (“Purple Haze”) was played by Wecan in our “death of ugly-little-duck” concert in Tsinghua. And another song (“Little Wing”) is also in Sting’s greatest album “Nothing but the Sun”.

Kennedy was accompanied by a strange band called “Kennedy Collective” for all Jimi’s songs: A double-bass standard to Jazz, two acoustic guitars, two cello, one oboe and one all-kinds-of-flutes including regular flute, piccolo and bass flute (I’ve never seen it before). For Bartok and Bach, he just soloed with such magnificent techniques that I fell asleep for them (only during Bartok’s piece, though) 8-()_. For Jimi’s songs, he basically follows the same pattern of A-B-A where A shows the main part of the song and B improvises over something. The great things about those songs are:

1. The strange combination of instruments work out perfectly. The sound is brand-new and appealing.

2. The violin can sound like ANYTHING in Kennedy’s hands like bass, flute, soprano, and especially Jimi’s distorted electric guitar. I chose my usher section on the balcony just above the stage so that I could see his playing, in which he used a lot of guitar techniques like pushing the strings, gliding on string board extremely fast, etc. And he played almost anywhere on the strings for different sounds, like close to his fingers or below the bridge. One guitar player also played like a monkey on his guitar, and he even plucked the strings on the head part (where there’re the tuning nuts) to create a very distinctive NOISE.

3. The interaction between the violin and the band is fabulous. And for quite a few times Kennedy, with a smug smile on his face, just kept accelerating the same phrase until everyone else is out of breath.

OK, the mail is already too long and it’s only the first part! One conclusion is: If Kennedy comes to your town, check him out!