January 22, 2018

Review: Roomful of Teeth Stretches for a Piano Premiere

Review: Roomful of Teeth Stretches for a Piano Premiere


Photo

Roomful of Teeth at Zankel Hall. From left, Estelí Gomez, Martha Cluver, Caroline Shaw, Virginia Warnken Kelsey, Eric Dudley, Thann Scoggin, Dashon Burton and Cameron Beauchamp.

Credit
Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

A musical week that began on Monday with displays of extended instrumental techniques, in the New York Philharmonic’s Contact! concert at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, wound down on Thursday with a show of extended vocal techniques, by the ensemble Roomful of Teeth at Zankel Hall.

Roomful, an a cappella octet founded in 2009, is a veritable repository of such practices, using amplification and close miking to artistic effect. Its guiding philosophy was summed up by its artistic director, Brad Wells, in a preconcert discussion at Zankel: “Voices can do so much more.”

More of what? The sky may be a limit, maybe not.

Roomful’s great showpiece is the Partita for 8 Voices, a four-movement work by one of its members, the alto Caroline Shaw, which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for music. The Pulitzer citation aptly described some of the techniques involved: “speech, whispers, sighs, murmurs, wordless melodies and novel vocal effects.” It could have added grunts, rasps, throat singing and even a sort of winding twang suggesting a jaw harp.

The Partita appropriately opened the program, and the presentation was thoroughly polished and utterly winning. The work “was written with and for my dear friends in Roomful of Teeth,” Ms. Shaw has written, and it was evident here that every singer had a major stake in the performance.

Photo

The pianist and composer Tigran Hamasyans performing “Ser Aravote” with Caroline Shaw, left, and Virginia Warnken Kelsey.

Credit
Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

And every performance. Two of them were New York premieres: Ambrose Akinmusire’s “a promise in the stillness” (2016), with an earthy vocalise by the soprano Estelí Gomez, and Tigran Hamasyan’s “Ser Aravote” (2017). Both were complex enough to require Mr. Wells’s presence as conductor.

“Ser Aravote” was particularly rich and varied, with Mr. Hamasyan on hand as pianist. The work is based on an ancient Armenian chant for which the text survives, but not the music. And the text is a puzzler, with verses falling into groups of 17 syllables, divided five, five and seven. Mr. Hamasyan met this rhythmic challenge with a melody that seemed, in its many metamorphoses, sometimes to limp momentarily, sometimes to skip.



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