THE King’s Singers, founded in 1968, were described by one journalist as “the most arresting thing to have happened to British music since Haydn’s Surprise Symphony”. The charm and wit of the young graduates of King’s College, Cambridge, the poise and perfection of their sound, and their ability to snap from Renaissance to jazz thrilled audiences all over the world.
Brian Kay encapsulated the zest of the enterprise. A brilliant young bass, he travelled the world with the fledgling group, doing more than 2000 concerts with them over 15 years, before going on to become a much-loved Radio 3 presenter and choral conductor.
In this fizzing memoir — as bucking-up as one of the New Year’s Day concerts that he presented live from Vienna for 15 years — Kay gives us a tour of his music-steeped life. His story reminds us how vital it is to nurture any young person who shows musical talent. Born in Yorkshire in 1944, he followed his father, brother, and cousins to a benign Methodist prep school in Colwyn Bay, Rydal, whose headmaster, a Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiast, wrote musicals entitled The Batsman’s Bride and The Man Who Bowled the Maiden Over. Kay and his younger brother Graham both won the Kay Cup for Solo Singing.
Thus began Kay’s remarkable career, kick-started by three years as a King’s choral scholar under Sir David Willcocks. Later, when the King’s Singers appeared on television with the Greek singer Nana Mouskouri, they had to confess that the only Greek that they knew was “Kyrie eleison”.
The book paints a portrait of Britain in the 1970s and ’80s as a country rich with musical enterprise and opportunity. Career breaks arose out of chance meetings and chats. It is almost painful to read it during this time of enforced stifling when no chance meetings are taking place.
During a King’s Singers concert at the Cheltenham Festival in 1982, Kay did an off-stage announcement in a breathy old-style “Third Programme” voice, just for fun. The producer asked him in the interval what he was thinking of doing after leaving the group. “Have you ever considered becoming a radio announcer?”
Thus began decades of work at the BBC; Kay quickly moved from announcer to presenter, first of Music in Mind and then Brian Kay’s Sunday Morning. The BBC comes across as callous and brutal, though, when it comes to letting its presenters go — especially when they’re doing particularly well. When Kay won a Sony Gold Award for presenting, a friend said: “Watch out — too many awards and you’ll be out.” Which, indeed, proved to be the case.
As Kay wryly writes of that experience, “One door closes, another door slams in your face.” Oddly, that is the phrase that most rings in my ear after reading this book that belies that statement. Doors did continue to open for this positive-minded man, who then thought nothing of doing a 320-mile round trip every Friday to conduct the Huddersfield Choral Society.
Ysenda Maxtone Graham is a critic and writer. Her latest book is British Summer Times Begins (Little, Brown, 2020) (Books, 17 July 2020).
Music, My Life: A gallimaufry of musical memories
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