A very British group is having a very jolly time exploring the Great American Songbook.
"It's our chance to delve deeper into a fantastic body of work. The research was as much fun as the execution," says Christopher Gabbitas, 34, of Sussex, England, a second baritone who joined The King's Singers in February 2004.
The six-man a cappella ensemble -- two countertenors, one tenor, two baritones and one bass from southeast England -- will bring new arrangements of American standards to the University of Dubuque on Monday (2/3) and the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday (2/4).
"It's a real departure for us. We usually present quite a contrasting concert -- a journey from the Renaissance to the present day," Gabbitas says by phone from a recent tour stop in Hungary.
The Grammy-winning ensemble's hallmark is commissioning new works by contemporary composers and breathing new life into the choral repertoire. This new project lets them explore a different style of classic tunes, showcased on the group's "Great American Songbook" album, released Oct. 29.
"We've wanted to do that for a long time," Gabbitas says, adding that the hard part was paring a collection of 3,000 songs into 300 favorites, then down to 17. "It was a really tough process."
He calls the result "a journey through love," embracing "the burning passion of new love" to lost loves and loves that have grown comfortable with time.
It features a who's who of composers -- Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern -- and such memorable melodies as "The Best is Yet to Come," "I've Got the World on a String," "Cheek to Cheek," "At Last," "The Lady is a Tramp" and "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye."
Arranged specifically for The King's Singers by Alexander L'Estrange, each song spotlights tight six-part harmony that melts your soul. A bonus CD features accompaniment by Denmark's South Jutland Symphony Orchestra.
For the tour, however, the music is performed a cappella with some elements of movement, stage craft and special lighting, Gabbitas says -- but not to the extent that the movements would take away from their purity of sound. That's a fine line to walk in this day and age, when show choirs and "Glee" champion elaborate choreography.
On the upside, he says those pop culture phenoms, along with television competitions like "The Sing-Off," have made tight harmony and a cappella singing hip again.
"It's made more people realize singing is actually quite a cool thing to do," Gabbitas says. "Singing with your friends and working as a team is just as valid as playing on a football team or playing on the baseball team. It's a great way of meeting people. It's a great way of expressing yourself. It's well-respected by your peers. And it's just a really, really healthy way of spending time.
"There are multiple studies to show that people who sing live happier, richer lives. They become better able to communicate. They become more employable. It makes their brains work in a way that helps them to fulfill cognitive reasoning elements and to learn languages. ... It's just a recipe for brightening up your life generally," he says. "I think people are seizing on that as being part of living a healthy, active lifestyle."
Teaching is an important mission for this ensemble, which formed in 1968 at King's College in Cambridge, about 50 miles north of London. When time allows, the singers conduct masterclasses with students and show choirs, stressing the importance of learning their notes before adding movement, so it won't hinder their musicality.
After the ensemble’s first decade, members have rotated in and out of The King's Singers, to the point where none of the current lineup attended King's College. Their ages range from late 20s to early 50s. Countertenor David Hurley has the longest tenure, joining in February 1990, while the newest member is first baritone Christopher Hugh Nicholas Bruerton, who joined in February 2012.
Gabbitas says that when new members were needed in 1978, the organizers "very quickly realized ... that if they limited themselves to one stable, they were going to rule out a lot of potentially fantastic colleagues."
So attending King's College was dropped as one of the requirements for this fulltime ensemble that now spends six or seven months each year touring to six continents.
"As it happened, the majority of members did have connection either with King's or more widely, with Cambridge University or Oxford University, so you knew you were getting people of that high intellectual caliber, as well as a good musical education," he says.
"As the years went by, the group decided that the right people for any given auditioning spot didn’t even have to go to Oxbridge (a shortened term for the two colleges). I was at Cambridge and two of my colleagues were at Oxford. We just try to pick the right person now, regardless of where they studied."
It's an elite process that isn't offered to the public at large. Despite having more than 30,000 Facebook friends, the ensemble doesn't post audition notices on social media. Instead, the remaining singers contact their friends and associates in the music business.
"We know what we want and know where the successful candidate will come from," Gabbitas says. To cast a net through social media would be a waste of time, since they’re looking for singers from a specific region and training. "We're trying to be kind by not putting people’s hopes up."
He describes Oxford, Cambridge and London as a kind of "golden triangle for boy choristers in the British tradition."
"That's just our tradition, and people who studied there will be a good fit for the group."
Talent, while vital, isn't the only consideration.
"We do our due diligence not just in terms of voice but in business acumen," he says. "This is a business -- a six-man partnership, with recordings and over 2 million pieces of music in print. Our public face is absolutely our performing onstage. ...
"But we're a fulltime entity. A lot goes on under the water. We're rather like swans -- all elegance on the surface, but our legs are churning underwater. We have to think of that when we're appointing a new member, along with his ability to project elegance and poise. That's our brand. We are six Englishmen, rather than bunch of singers who turn up and sing," Gabbitas says.
"We also have to make sure it’s the right person socially, since we spend more time with them than with our wives."