The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Music is a universal language. It doesn’t sound the way you might think.  

The Balkanes performed Monday as part of the Serenade festival. (Olivier Camax)

We’re often told that music is a universal language, crossing cultural, ethnic and linguistic boundaries. On Monday night at the Kennedy Center, choruses from around the world showed what today’s musical lingua franca actually sounds like: loud, joyful, and slightly pop-tinged.

The event was the culmination of the Serenade! festival, which is in its seventh year of presenting choruses from around the world in the D.C. area. This time it joined forces with the Kennedy Center to celebrate the president's centennial with a focus on choruses from countries touched by the Peace Corps, which John F. Kennedy established in 1961.

Mongolians, Zimbabweans and refugees come to sing for JFK

The result was a colorful pageant of choruses of varying abilities in various colorful outfits showing brief snapshots of their repertoire, including no fewer than eight new works specially commissioned for the festival, all woven together with projected images and recorded snippets of relevant Kennedy speeches (a well from which the Kennedy Center has copiously drawn during its season-long observation of the centennial).

The overarching message was social as much as artistic — signaled by the very first chorus, Pihcintu, based in Maine and comprising young refugees from a number of the countries currently in the crosshairs of American immigration policy. “Under One Sky” was a simple yet evocative melody with basic harmony, and there was no way not to like it.

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

The groups increased in ability and virtuosity as the program continued. Le Cantanti di Chicago sang a new “Iraqi Peace Song,” with a haunting soloist; the Indian chorus Gandharva offered taut harmonies in “Vasudhaiva Kutumbkam” (The world is one family); and the six women of Latvian Voices, in a range of arresting, birdlike, yellow-and-black garb, strolled on stage emitting a range of bird songs, trills and ululations before singing a new work, “High Flight,” setting a poem by a World War II aviator. The Mongolian trio Egschiglen played stringed instruments and sang in otherworldly voices that sounded like grinding rocks and whistling wind; and the boys of the Escolania de Montserrat (Europe’s oldest boys choir) offered letter-perfect Western choral singing, with two sturdy and lyrical soloists.

What came across from this melange was the idea that music is much bigger and more varied, and, at the same time, in a way simpler than we in the performing arts field in the West often seem to try to make it. The music performed was often complex and new, and yet it required no special knowledge or introduction or permission for anyone, including the many children in the audience, to be able to enjoy it.

Before the final set, all the choruses proceeded down the aisles of the Concert Hall, waving glow sticks, and took the stage, more than 300 strong, accompanied by an African drum, an Indian tabla and a Mongolian stringed instrument: perhaps the most genuinely international ensemble I’ve ever heard, apart from the Olympic Games. A letter projected over the stage confirmed that Kennedy’s favorite song was “Greensleeves,” and out of the burbles and whistles and drones of sound on stage, “Greensleeves” gradually coalesced, a whole rainbow of accents and inflections coming together in simple words of an almost archetypal song.

Technically, the grand finale was the world premiere of the spirited “Ansanm Ansanm” (All together we sing) by the Haitian composer Sydney Guillaume, but “Greensleeves” was the night’s emotional heart — and got its messages across.