Roomful of Teeth delivers alluring vocal music with bite at Stave Sessions

March 19, 2015 at 12:43 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Roomful of Teeth performed in the Celebrity Series’ Stave Sessions festival Wednesday night.

Reaching new audiences has been one of the primary challenges for many classical music organizations. This week, the Celebrity Series of Boston launched its own initiative to attract a younger crowd with Stave Sessions—a six-day music festival that showcases ensembles whose work blurs the increasingly arbitrary boundaries between what is “classical” and what is not.

The fourth concert of the series, heard Wednesday night at the Berklee College of Music’s new residence hall, featured Roomful of Teeth in an alluring program of genre-bending music.

Roomful of Teeth was founded in 2009 as a means to explore vocal techniques not normally associated with classical music, such as Tuvan throat singing, yodeling, and belting. The a cappella octet performs with amplification, which produces a robust tone that enhances their experimental sound. Each piece on Wednesday’s seventy-five minute concert sounded vibrant due to the singers’ masterful display of vocal color.

The ensemble opened with a spectacular performance of Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning Partita for 8 Voices.

Shaw’s writing is radiant and thoroughly tonal, yet her riff on Baroque forms are peppered with surprising chromatic shifts. The work offers surprises at every turn, and the composer, a singer with Roomful of Teeth, makes mesmerizing use of the human voice. Sighs, grunts, speech fragments, and wide vowel sounds all fuse together in a luminous tapestry of sound.

Through it all, Roomful of Teeth sang with deep, penetrating tone. The male singers of the ensemble crafted a sturdy rhythmic groove from the pulsing lines, while the women stacked shimmering harmonics overhead. The breathy chords of the first movement Allemande unfolded gradually into full-throated phrases. The third movement Courante featured the female singers sighing in steady rhythms, which gradually took on a propulsive energy.

The second half of the concert featured a host of works that were equally colorful.

Of those, Merrill Garbus’ Ansa Ya was gorgeous in its effects. Solo calls coalesce into extended statements. Toe-tapping grooves are no stranger to this work as well, with the men and women singers trading sharp, punctuated statements.

The music is simple in its design, tonal and full of repeated melodic and rhythmic patterns. At its climactic moments, the work bristles with shouts and gnarly vocal leaps. A folk-flavored melody appears mid work, which Caroline Shaw sang with her hauntingly distant alto voice.

Other works didn’t plumb much emotional depth but were still fun to listen to. Rinde Eckert’s Cesca’s View, scored for four female singers, featured the dexterous yodeling of Estelí Gomez. William Brittelle’s High Done No Why To also employs ear-tingling vocal sonorities, such as the breathy sounds of rapid inhaling and exhaling. The short work is chock full of spiky lines and wide melodic leaps, with the rhythmic sighs dying away into soft phrases.

Judd Greenstein’s Montmartre makes dexterous use of nasal, edgy sounds that, with the aid of amplification, produced rich overtones. This work, too, pulses with rhythm, the work’s energy dutifully supplied by the ensemble’s low voices. Roomful of Teeth gave each work a strong, committed reading.

But the most affecting piece of the second half was Render, composed by the ensemble’s director Brad Wells. As Wells noted in his remarks, the piece concerns the continuation of consciousness after death, capturing in music “the breathing in and out on a cosmic scale.”

Render unfolds slowly in waves of svelte vocal phrases, with lines coming to rest on spacious intervals. Close seconds flutter in the texture like a candle. Roomful of Teeth gave the work a supple performance, with Wells leading with gentle pulsing gestures.

Even the encore proved new and appealing. The chant-like phrases of Rinde Eckert’s I Have Stopped the Clocks unfolded in dovetail fashion, forming a chatter of sound over a thin blanket of vocal harmonies. Roomful of Teeth, here too, sounded alert and vibrant.

The next event of the Celebrity Series Stave Sessions will feature cellist and vocalist Ben Sollee and the Becca Stevens Band in two sessions 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Thursday at 160 Mass. Ave., Boston. celebrityseries.org; 617-482-2595

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