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At the Kennedy Center, an International Cast of Voices
Bobby McFerrin Is the Deft Host

By Stephen Brookes
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Kennedy Center's ongoing festival of a cappella music is virtually a summit of the world's top voice-only ensembles, performing everything from show tunes to Renaissance madrigals. The concerts this past week at the Millennium Stage have been both free and revelatory (and try arguing with that) but the best may have been reserved for Sunday night, when a global who's who of a cappella, hosted by the pioneering vocalist Bobby McFerrin, pulled out all the stops for a concert titled "A World of Voices."

McFerrin, of course, has done more to build interest in a cappella music than any other single performer, and it was quickly obvious why. An utterly natural musician with an irrepressible sense of play, he took a chair and began improvising an African-inflected tune in a high, gentle voice. Adding percussion by beating on his chest, he worked in deep bass notes, the sounds eerily imitating a thumb piano, then a lower vocal line, until he'd transformed himself into a virtual quartet -- a virtuosic and absolutely riveting performance that brought the house down.

McFerrin hosted the rest of the concert lightly, always singing rather than speaking, and drawing the audience into the performance with a deft comic touch.

The more famous names stole the show. Chanticleer -- the reigning gods of the men's chorus world -- roam across the centuries with elegant nonchalance, and after opening with some early polyphony from Andrea Gabrieli, delivered a soaring, intense account of Mahler's "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen," swanned though the Gershwin standard "Love Walked In" and topped things off with a stirring gospel number.

D.C.'s own Sweet Honey in the Rock delivered its self-described "intense social commentary" with several colorful songs, and the South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo turned in gentle, enveloping harmonies drawn from traditional Zulu music, livened up with high kicks and much leaping around. The most amazing singing of the evening, though, came from Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares, whose strange, flavorful timbres and unearthly harmonies -- drawn from Bulgarian folk music -- sound both ancient and completely modern.

McFerrin closed the evening by bringing all the performers onstage for a collective improvisation, a statement, if one were needed, of the universality of music and the power of the human voice.

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