Vocal pyrotechnics by Roomful of Teeth at May Festival

Roomful of Teeth played the Woodward Theater for the May Festival. Photo provided/Lee Snow

It’s hard to categorize Roomful of Teeth, a vocal octet that calls itself a “vocal project.” On Wednesday, the singers — Abigail Lennox and Martha Cluver, sopranos; Alexandra Colaizzi and Virginia Kelsey, altos; Eric Dudley, tenor (former assistant conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra); Avery Griffin, baritone; Thann Scoggin, bass-baritone, and Cameron Beauchamp, bass — amazed a sold-out house with their vocal pyrotechnics at the Woodward Theater in Over-the-Rhine.

There were about 150 music lovers, with a space for standing room, for this sold-out “extra” concert, a first at the 146-year-old Cincinnati May Festival.

It’s safe to say that their style of singing is unusual, if not revolutionary. Their musical palette — some of which was showcased in their first number, Caroline Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices — included whispering, throat singing, bending of tones, yodeling and possibly some Bulgarian belting, one of their specialties. It was performed with amplification, but nothing, I’m told, was electronically manipulated — which made the feats they achieved even more stunning.

For her Partita, Shaw, a member of the ensemble (she wasn’t there for this performance) drew upon the Baroque dance forms: Allemande, Sarabande, Courante and Passacaglia.

In the opening Allemande, there were Renaissance-like pure-toned phrases and deep drones in the men’s voices, interwoven with spoken conversation (“the organized chaos of square dance calls”). That flowed into a kind of slow-motion, ecstatic soaring of women’s voices.

I loved the Courante, which had a percussive, whispering undercurrent that grew into a full-blown, wordless folk song, “Shining Shore,” hummed in traditional harmony before chugging off into new vocal territory.

The women of Roomful of Teeth. Photo provided/Lee Snow

It was endlessly inventive. There was the otherworldly tone of Caleb Burhans’ “Beneath,” which had some kind of throat singing — whether Inuit or Tuvan, I couldn’t tell you — with minimalist repetitions that grew to full-out belting.

Shaw’s “The Isle” — her own musical reading of the island of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” — was a wonderful discovery consisting of three monologues, by Ariel, Caliban and Prospero. Ariel’s monologue opened with evocative murmuring, some bird-like fluttering and ascending vocal lines, transitioning to a counterpoint on the first word of the text, “come.” The work unfolded at times with waves of sound. It was spellbinding.

They ended with Merrill Garbus’ joyously nasal “Quizassa.” Alev Lenz’s “Fall into me” was an exotic encore.

The Grammy-winning vocal octet appears Friday night May 17 with the May Festival in the U.S. premiere of Mark Simpson‘s “The Immortal.” Spotted in the house on Wednesday were Simpson, conductor Juanjo Mena and baritone Rod Gilfry.

For more about this season, which opens tomorrow, click on the Business Courier.

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