« Liberty Voices - the world's busiest a cappella group? | Main | Acappella Company seeks lead singer »

October 29, 2007

Songs, Poems and Burps in a Theater for the Ear

New York Times:

A single plummy voice probes sentences in the belligerent tones of a workingman’s indignation: “Well I sez to him, I sez, what I’m tryin’ to say, what I mean to say, I mean, you know. ...” Repeated, the words stumble into patterns of defensive insecurity, suddenly affording an uncomfortable glimpse into someone’s neuroses. Then the speaker’s accent changes, and the words become those of an upper-crust pedant, who invests the same syllables with crisp self-satisfaction.

This is theater, all right: Theater of Voices, the excellent vocal ensemble Paul Hillier founded in 1990, which performed three very different, very theatrical vocal compositions at Zankel Hall on Thursday night. This repetitive opening monologue was “As I Was Saying,” by the writer Sheldon Frank; as performed by Mr. Hillier himself, it attuned the ear to the nuanced dance between sound and meaning that formed the theme of the program.

Another theme was the play between the serious and the antic, continued in “A-Ronne,” by Luciano Berio, which, like many Berio vocal works, has a tongue-in-cheek air. It drew laughs as it played with tones of voice and sound effects (including one accomplished burp), but seemed dated in brandishing an air of transgressive naughtiness that is no longer either transgressive or naughty. But it is engaging, like an elderly uncle who is still a witty raconteur of oft-told tales.

And Mr. Hillier’s group, which has already brought new life to one arm of the 20th-century avant-garde this year with its CD of Stockhausen’s “Stimmung” made it sound as fresh as possible. The five singers caressed and repeated the individual words of the Edoardo Sanguineti poem that the piece deconstructs, from “principio” (beginning) to “ronne” (an archaic Italian term for the end of the alphabet).

By contrast, the final piece — David Lang’s “little match girl passion,” in its premiere — was tragedy. But it was tragedy presented so that you sensed implied quotation marks around certain passages that danced elegantly along the line between high art and kitsch. Mr. Lang took Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale and made its Christian subtext explicit. The story of a poor child who freezes to death — told in long, gentle, repetitive chains of notes, with the lead voice gradually dragging the three other voices behind it in a messy wake — was interspersed with meditative sections, including a quasi-chorale on the words “Have mercy, my God.”

Touched with the frost of chimes and tubular bells, the piece goes a little over the top, and the four singers looked for guidance to Mr. Hillier, here the conductor, as if they were all still seeking the tone they would ultimately choose.

Posted by acapnews at October 29, 2007 7:53 PM


The Pulitzer Prizes have been announced today (April 8, 2008), and David Lang has won for Music with the "Little Match Girl Passion" reviewed above. I've just finished listening to it at the Carnegie site. Fantastic. lkm

Posted by: LKM at April 8, 2008 1:40 PM

Post a comment

Remember Me?