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-- Mike Joyce
If an audience member had asked the singers of Nordic Voices to tie their vocal cords in knots or chant in perfect accord while drinking glasses of water, they might have done it. At their Dumbarton Concerts performance Saturday night at Dumbarton United Methodist Church, no feat seemed impossible.
Just in from Oslo, the ensemble presented a combination of Renaissance and contemporary works on sacred texts, notably three settings of "O magnum mysterium." In the most exciting of these, written in 2006 by the Norwegian composer Henrik Odegaard, the group's three women and three men stretched voice and mind to their limits. They explored quarter tones and overtones, let out fierce, tribal-sounding calls, hummed, and saturated the room in glorious, full-voiced sound. At times, they sounded like an engine revving up; at others, like an angelic choir. They transitioned seamlessly from one style to another, and intonation was flawless. Their entrances and cutoffs were perfectly timed, as though a current of air were being switched on and off.
Though fascinating, such pyrotechnics were not the group's sole offering. Throughout the Renaissance works, the singers' tone was pure and rich, like an organ. Counterpoint and expression sounded clear and natural; as solo lines came to the surface and mingled, singers appeared to be lost in their own worlds, with unison endings emerging miraculously.
Such mesmerizing talent is rare. With so many musical offerings at the larger venues in Washington, it is easy to lose sight of how vast the music world is, and how much one may be missing. As Nordic Voices proves, looking past the Kennedy Center can be well worth the effort.
-- Ronni Reich
"My voice is my best friend, but today it's my worst enemy," singer Emily King said during her Saturday night show at the Black Cat, explaining that a sore throat had replaced her usually flirty, husky tone with a "sexy, raspy" sound.
King, whose debut disc, "East Side Story," is nominated for a Grammy, is a master storyteller. "Colorblind" touches on her mixed heritage and the subject of tolerance; the ballad "U & I" walks through a first encounter with a great love; and "It Was You" is just one of her many songs that details heartbreak. King likes to share every single aspect of her life with her listeners -- including her bout with the common cold.
"Can I sing and suck on a Halls?" she asked before jumping into "E Melody." "I have to swallow my lozenge," she said during the bridge of "U & I." "I'm not contagious!" she promised at one point.
The 22-year-old New Yorker, who appeared with Philly R&B/rock band Franklin Bridge, didn't sound nearly as sickly as she thought she might. Only a couple of times was she faced with a high note too difficult for her shredded throat to produce, at which time her background vocalist and band pitched in. Even King's mentor, D.C.-bred producer Chucky Thompson, helped make the show a success: The man behind some of Biggie Smalls's and Mary J. Blige's biggest hits did duty behind a drum kit.
King ended her show with "Walk in My Shoes," her latest single, and the crowd enthusiastically sang along, which had to have made the rising star feel even better than a bowl of chicken soup or some cold medicine could have.
-- Sarah Godfrey