Roomful of Teeth Take Choral Music to the Next Level
It’s hard to imagine a more exciting vocal group than Roomful of Teeth. Friday night at Lincoln Center, at the release show for their new album – just out from New Amsterdam – it became clear that to be a part of this band, it’s not only necessary to have powerful pipes and spectacular range, and soul, but also an aptitude for Tuvan throat singing, yodeling, microtones and Balkan music. The nine-piece ensemble, directed with casual assurance by Brad Wells, wowed the crowd with their command of techniques from around the globe, but also with their passion and acuity for a series of almost cruelly difficult, often absolutely gorgeous works by contemporary composers that bring out every octave worth of these singers’ talent.
They opened with a Judd Greenstein piece titled Montmartre. Greenstein is a showy composer and this piece was characteristic, but it had melody to match the theatrics: the women punching in contrapuntally against the mens’ low, oscillating, pulsing throat-singing. The group switched nimbly to lushly shifting ambient harmonies with intertwined call-and-response, soprano Virginia Warnken bringing its central crescendo to a vivid peak. The men ended it with a triumphantly flangey swirl of throat-singing – it’s one thing to do that individually, it’s another to do it in harmony and with the kind of precision they showed off here.
There were two Missy Mazzoli compositions on the bill. The first, Vesper Sparrow, was written just a couple of weeks ago. The women swooped with distant echoes of birdsong which gave way to Mazzoli’s signature swirls of attractively consonant melody with just the hint of apprehension. The women in the group displayed unexpeced power in their low registers, soprano Caroline Shaw lighting the way as the piece took on a considerably somber, plainchant aspect, pulsing richly with every available harmony. The second number, The Shield of the Heart Is the Heart playfully switched from a half-yodeled round to another intricate thicket of shifting polyphony and counterrythms thinly disguising a jaunty doo-wop theme.
The most striking composition on the bill might have been Sarah Kirkland Snider’s The Orchard, sung with vivid uneasse by bass Cameron Beauchamp over rhythmic insistence from the women and warily shifting textures from the rest of the crew. In its dark heart, it turned out to be a pensive, folk-tinged art-rock anthem for choir. After a descent into moody ambience, the ensemble let it linger austerely at the end. In its own understated way, it was a showstopper.
The night’s wildest momehts came during William Brittelle’s dramatically shapeshifting Amid the Minotaurs. Brittelle has great musical wit, and this triptych was loaded with it. Inspired by famed Alabama coach Bear Bryant, who died barely a month after retiring from football, it juxtaposed a deadpan, sarcastic hymn with faux-operatic cheerleading and finally a power ballad of sorts that had Warnken namechecking Louis Farrakhan at the top of her register at full gale force: as Brittelle’s lyrics made clear beyond any doubt, death is not the least bit subtle.
Other works on the bill included a Shaw composition, Courante, its rustic, hymnal melody featuring vivid high/low contrasts speckled with unexpectedly jarring accents and bookended by whispery, breathy rhythmic interludes. Rinde Eckert’s Cesca’s View also explored rustic Americana, setting leaping, yodeling motifs against a warmly nocturnal backdrop punctuated by clever echo effects.
A piece by mErRiLl gArBuS, tHe oNcE aNd fUtUrE tUnEyArDs, wAs A sIgNaL tHaT iT wAs tImE tO lEaVe [sorry, couldn’t resist]. With groups like these, the obvious stars are found at the extremes: high soprano Esteli Gomez, with her effortless, spun-silk timbre; Shaw with her powerful, crystalline delivery; Beauchamp, who’s not afraid to go down low for laughs as well as power; and baritone Dashon Burton, who not only matched Beauchamp for lowdown impact, but also showed off a dazzling falsetto. Tenor Eric Dudley, soprano Martha Cluver and baritone Avery Griffin also had dazzling moments of their own, particularly when it came to throat-singing. For sheer thrill factor, on a good night for music, Roomful of Teeth were impossible to surpass.