A CAPPELLA: Singing Solo Music

A CAPPELLA: Singing Solo Music

Monday, June 2, 2008

Cantus and Trio Mediaeval

In the best of times, collaboration between two first-rate vocal ensembles doubles the fun. On Friday, Minnesota-based Cantus (nine men) teamed up with Norway's Trio Mediaeval (all women) for a sold-out concert at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, part of the "A Cappella: Singing Solo" festival. The program was a motley mix of 13th-century English sacred motets, Norwegian and African folk arrangements and contemporary fare.

Cantus took the stage first, opening with Eric Whitacre's "Lux Aurumque" in ultra-smooth legato style. Rather than singing directly to the audience, the singers faced each other, moving in small, constantly changing groups, acting out texts visually and blending at times in close harmony rivaling the finest barbershop technique. Bob Chilcott's cynical, dissonant "5 Ways to Kill a Man" was sounded out with dramatic crescendos; a drummer (from the ensemble) hammered out a repeated ostinato figure that energized the vocal texture. Thomas Tallis's "Lamentations of Jeremiah," Part 1, was delivered with exalting finesse, and Bobby McFerrin's updated "Psalm 23" was cleverly voiced.

Much of the time, Trio Mediaeval offered seamless counterpoint and expressive dynamics; but after intermission it sailed through a slew of Norwegian folk songs with no explanation or translation. Also, the two ensembles linked up only rarely, and when they did the women merely sang solos in strained, edgy timbres against the men's expressive power.

The performance was one of the center's Fortas Chamber Music concerts.

-- Cecelia Porter

I Fagiolini

The Kennedy Center's A Cappella festival continued on Saturday night with the Washington debut of the British vocal octet I Fagiolini. The whimsy implied by that unfortunate name, the Italian word for string beans, comes across in the group's innovative, modern staging. The first half of its Terrace Theater concert proved that such an approach is as unnecessary as it is provocative.

With no bells or whistles, the musicians simply sang two sets of Monteverdi madrigals, in a daring range of dynamics and color. Published in nine books for an elite ensemble, this masterly cycle of music is the vocal equivalent of something like the string quartets of Beethoven. From the fourth book, "Piagn'e sospira" was the high point, with Monteverdi's more contrapuntal style on display in the overlapping of chromatic rising lines. Monteverdi turned to more forward-looking styles in the later books, and the expressive devices in two madrigals from the ninth book were handled here with crystalline intonation. The only concern in these five-part works was that the balance was sometimes tilted toward the louder male voices.

That issue was resolved in the excellent performance of Poulenc's smoke-filled "Sept Chansons," which required all eight singers. The best piece on the second half was Luciano Berio's modernistic updating of the programmatic chanson, "Cries of London." It was difficult to hear much of its Renaissance companion work, Da Flecha's ensalada "El Fuego," because of Peter Wilson's ludicrous staging, involving two spectators threatened with a water pitcher. The concert concluded with three selections from the group's crossover experiment with South African music.

-- Charles T. Downey

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