Vocalists and 21st-Century Microtones — in a Crypt

United StatesUnited States Ben Johnston, James Weeks, Kayleigh Butcher/Bethany Younge, Courtney Bryan, Liza Lim, Cassandra Miller: Ekmeles/Jeffrey Gavett (conductor), The Crypt at the Church of the Intercession, New York, NY. 7.10.2017. (BH)

Ben JohnstonRose (1971)
James WeeksPrimo Libro (2012-2016, world premiere)
Kayleigh Butcher and Bethany YoungeHer Disappearance (2015)
Courtney BryanCome Away, My Beloved (2013)
Liza LimThree Angels (2011)
Cassandra MillerGuide (2013, U.S. premiere)

Charlotte Mundy – soprano
Sarah Brailey – soprano
Elisa Sutherland – mezzo-soprano
Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek – mezzo-soprano
Padraig Costello – countertenor
Michael Jones – tenor
Jeffrey Gavett – director and baritone
Peter Stewart – bass

Though Ekmeles, the avant-garde vocal ensemble, has performed in venues all over New York, this was its first appearance at the Crypt, part of the Church of the Intercession in upper Manhattan. (And yes, it is an actual crypt, confirmed by a glance at the burial vaults along the walls.) The arched brick ceiling lends a natural resonance, making the room ideal for repertoire that benefits from reverberance, and choral works find a particularly comfortable home. Sealing the deal is intimacy: The space accommodates scarcely over 50 listeners.

As the centerpiece of the program—slightly over an hour—was the world premiere of Primo Libro by James Weeks, music director of London’s EXAUDI, a choral group also committed to cutting-edge works. Weeks and Jeff Gavett (baritone and Ekmeles’ director) agreed to a little swap: Each would write a work for the other. But as Weeks joked afterward, his own ensemble perhaps got the easier end of the deal.

Weeks was inspired by the work of Nicolà Vincentino, a 16th-century composer who explored microtones far earlier than many listeners might expect, assuming that microtonal writing is a 20th-century innovation. In 1555, Vincentino wrote a book of madrigals, L’antica musica ridotta alla moderna prattica (“Ancient music adapted to modern practice”), and included works created using a 31-note octave. (Let’s pause to let that sink in, and compare to the standard, Western 12-note version).

The compositional question Weeks posed: “Is it possible to to tune perfect major and minor triads on all 31 degrees of the scale?” He has answered that query triumphantly in eighteen miniatures (most are scarcely a minute long), using Italian texts from Arcadelt’s Primo Libro de’ Madrigali (1539), filled with phrases of love and desire.

Some of the songs are for one or two singers, others are for four. All require the utmost precision and vocal virtuosity; one was left in awe at the tuning required, which the Ekmeles singers delivered with boldness and accuracy. A song for soprano and countertenor had the duo inching upward in the tiniest of steps. In section 15, “True hell is my chest,” a full-throated fortissimo tutti—the singers all but yelling out their lines—made a dramatic ascent. In a mountain of microtones, Weeks sends an avalanche of them rushing down.

But there were other delights in the compact, well-conceived program. From Courtney Bryant’s A Time for Everything (2012-13), written for the group, came the rapturous second movement, “Come Away, My Beloved.” Its simple radiance belies a more complex harmonic underpinning, and again showed the singers at their most luminous.

In Liza Lim’s Three Angels (2011)—complex and disturbing—three singers wheezed, exhaled, and gasped their way through the texts by Helene Cixous and Neda Agha-Soltan, the latter known as “The Angel of Freedom” after she was killed during the 2009 election protests in Tehran, Iran. Kayleigh Butcher and Bethany Younge created the imaginative Her Disappearance for two sopranos, who puffed into twin didgeridoos to create popping sounds, intertwined with tiny, vocalized syllabic motifs—almost muttered, as if speaking in tongues. And in the earliest work on the program, Ben Johnston’s Rose (1971), with texts by Sibyl Johnston, the composer has created a vehicle that bears the formality of Elizabethan poetry, but with harmonies as if conceived by a microtonally-inclined bard. Like the rest of the evening, Johnston posed vocal challenges that the singers easily surmounted.

The evening closed with the U.S. premiere of Guide (2013) by Cassandra Miller (b. 1976), also commissioned by EXAUDI. Miller was inspired by a hymn recorded by Maria Muldaur, “Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,” which uses a wide tessitura to create a striking swooping effect. With eight extraordinary Ekmeles vocalists surrounding the audience and amplified by the crypt’s stone surfaces, one could only marvel at the repeated waves of ecstasy.

Bruce Hodges

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