The King’s Singers arrived for a performance at Toronto’s Koerner Hall on Thursday amidst a swirl of uproar and international media attention. One of their shows had been cancelled on religious grounds at a conservative college in Florida days earlier.
For their current Canadian tour, the program of choral music from the British a cappella group is titled Finding Harmony, a task just made that much more difficult.
On Feb. 11, two hours before the start of their concert at Pensacola Christian College, the Grammy-winning singers were informed that their appearance had been called off. An ensemble member’s “lifestyle” was initially cited as the reason for the abrupt cancellation. It was later revealed that one of the King’s Singers, countertenor Edward Button, is gay.
The King’s Singers are named after King’s College in Cambridge, England. Widely beloved for their serene and precise presentations of Bach, madrigals, spirituals and inoffensive pop music, they were blindsided by the decision. The sextet had played the venue previously without incident, and had given a concert the night before at Knowles Memorial Chapel in Winter Park, Fla.
“It was a bit of a shock,” tenor Julian Gregory told The Globe and Mail. “We’re not used to this. We are six musicians who love singing and sharing the joy of music in our travels around the world.”
Controversy follows the King’s Singers hesitatingly. Intensely wholesome, they make the Partridge Family look like the Doobie Brothers in comparison. Career highlights of the group formed in 1968 – none of the original members remain – include a featured guest spot on the Emmy Award-winning television special Julie Andrews: The Sound of Christmas in 1987. Among their albums are My Spirit Sang All Day, Get Happy! and Sermons and Devotions.
Yet, the group finds itself as collateral damage in the American culture wars. Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Republican governor, last year signed into law the Stop Woke Act (which restricts the ways that public schools can address anti-race topics) and the Parental Rights in Education bill, which critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” law.
Pensacola Christian College released a statement explaining that it cancelled the King’s Singers upon learning that one of the artists “openly maintained a lifestyle that contradicts Scripture.” (Photographs on Button’s Instagram account show the singer with another man.)
The statement from the college maintains the “highly talented musicians were treated with dignity and respect when informed of the cancellation.” Singer Gregory takes exception to this characterization. “I suppose they were civilized and polite, but the decision to cancel the concert was disrespectful.”
According to the college, the singers expressed “their understanding and acceptance of the change and were given full remuneration.” The statement does not paint the whole picture, according to Gregory, a member of the group since 2014.
“We tried to deal with their decision as calmly and politely as possible, rather than getting angry and aggressive. I suppose to the college, who didn’t feel they were doing anything wrong, our initial reaction indicated we were fine with it. But upon reflection, and after speaking with our managers about what had just happened, we thought, ‘This is crazy.’”
The King’s Singers’ Toronto performance was a calming of that crazy and a sweetly crooned reaction to the intolerance they experienced in a jurisdiction that likes to think of itself as the Sunshine State.
The program, which was performed in Montreal on Wednesday and later in London, Ont. (Friday) and Ottawa (Saturday), was devoted to periods of history in which communal singing played a healing role in divisive times. The opening selection was If I Can Help Somebody, a Civil Rights standard associated with the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.
If I can help somebody as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody with a word or song.
If I can show somebody that he’s traveling wrong,
Then my living will not be in vain.
The hymn was followed by Harry Dixon Loes’s This Little Light of Mine and U2′s MLK, a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. The concert, at turns poignant, larky, solemn and joyful, continued with Estonian and South African protest songs, Gaelic folk, Georgian polyphonic music, and 16th-century hymns of the Protestant Reformation movement.
The close-harmony exhibition wrapped up with a lighthearted medley that began with Paul Simon’s Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy and finished with George Gershwin’s Oh, I Can’t Sit Down, from Porgy and Bess.
In between, an appreciative audience heard Prince Ali, from the 1992 Disney animated film Aladdin. Disney, of course, is a cherished American playground and durable pop-culture institution famous for iconic cartoon characters such as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy.
The company, one of Florida’s largest employers, drew Mr. DeSantis’s ire when its CEO at the time criticized the state’s new classroom law.
The King’s Singers, who are closing out the week and their North American tour with the release of the title track from their forthcoming album, When You Wish Upon a Star: 100 Years of Disney Songs, sang Prince Ali with smiles on their faces, gladly leaving the goofy behind.