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‘Serenade!’ vocal ensemble festival showcases the sounds of the world

Members of Egschiglen, a Mongolian folk band, pose for a portrait. (L. Bataa)

“Serenade!,” the festival of vocal ensembles, is back in town for its seventh summer of dangling, like a tasting menu, bits of music from around the world, some of it untouched by the homogenizing influence of YouTube globalization.

At the Church of the Epiphany in downtown Washington on Friday, the evening’s opener, the Voix Boréales, a Canadian chorus of 60 girls with fresh-voiced energy and earnest, uplifting music, served admirably to provide a benchmark of carefully groomed Western culture as a contrast for what followed.

After the sweet Canadian girls, Balkanes, the quartet of exuberant Bulgarian matrons seemed larger than life. In splendid traditional dress and with huge voices, they made their way down the aisle, singing, bowing and greeting members of the audience as they went. Each of their seven songs was staged like a short opera scene and, except for a momentary pause for sober piety as they sang a setting of “Our Father,” they indulged in love, gossip and other assorted pleasures with enormous enthusiasm.

If the Balkanes quartet had a universal appeal to the common person, the 30-voice Gandharva Choir from India was, perhaps, more to a connoisseur’s taste. Unlike the rhythmic exuberant Indian instrumental music so popular here several decades ago, this music, while full of beautifully sung ornamentation, was harder to warm up to at first hearing.

This wasn’t the case, however, with the Egschiglen ensemble, three Mongolian musicians who, with stolid mien and a clutch of instruments, made some sounds I’ve never heard from a human voice. From time to time, one of the musicians, singing with extremely open production at a pitch an octave below regular bass range, began to whistle (at least it sounded like a whistle) simultaneously, producing haunting effects that sent shock waves through what had been sounding simply like interesting and unusual vocal and instrumental music-making.