Neue Vocalsolisten’s Easter matinée performance featured eight works presented in the U.S. for the first time. The variety on the program allowed the ensemble not only to demonstrate its impressive dynamic range and technical ability but also to imbue its performance with elements of theater and to examine, in the last two works, the role of virtuosity in the ensemble’s identity.
The afternoon began with Georges Aperghis’s Vittriool (2001). The six singers stood in a row on stage, positioned left to right according to their vocal range: on the far left, high soprano Sarah Maria Sun; next lyric soprano Susanne Leitz-Lorey; then Truike van der Poel, mezzo soprano; tenor Martin Nagy; baritone Guillermo Anzorena; and finally Andreas Fischer, bass. Vittriool exploited this men/women, high/low divide on stage for dynamic effect, with notes ping-ponging back and forth between the two groups. In one memorable section the men laid a staccato foundation of rumbling “B” sounds, over which the women sang sustained legato harmonies. At other moments in the piece the dynamic would break down, the singers seeming to talk over one another, like dialogue in a Robert Altman film. Amidst the harmonic disorder, though, the singers’ expressive technique remained a constant: if one singer employed vibrato, so did the rest; if one singer’s voice took on a breathless quality, the others’ followed suit. It all built to a rich cacophony from which, periodically, something startling would emerge, like a jarring augmented-fourth interval in the soprano.
Vittriool was perhaps the most demanding work in terms of the focus and technical skill it required from the performers, but the challenges packed so tightly into that piece were diffused across the works that followed. T-O (2013) by Silvia Rosani explored a range of textured sound. The singers mimicked the susurration of steady breathing; they made a sound like a cat’s purr and another like the jaunty boinging of a Jew’s harp. The piece moved forward in slow, even cadences, I-V-I or V-I, its gentle rhythm recalling deep sleep.
Brahim Kerkour’s Intone (2013) eschewed melody and rhythm in order to focus exclusively on the texture of sound produced by the voice. As the program notes explained, Intone excludes literary, verbal, and objective associations.” The six singers sat in a circle facing one another. Together, the noise they produced was an ever-mutating hiss, like feedback or radio static. It seemed I was hearing the distilled potential of sound, that the works before and after Intone had all somehow proceeded from this abstract, pre-verbal noise.
The first half concluded with Zaid Jabri’s Two Songs from Mihyar from Damascus (2013). The piece moved forward in large harmonic blocks, the sopranos advancing a dissonant unison figure, or sopranos and basses trading strange, solemn chords. There were moments of spectral counterpoint, a leading tone in the upper register left unresolved, followed by a distant note in the bass.
First after intermission came Francesco Filidei’s Dormo molto amore (2013). From a meditative beginning, the piece slowly devolved into more complex harmonies and syncopated bursts, shifting abruptly from loud to soft. After this crisp, ruminative beginning, the latter half seemed muddled.
With Notre Meute (2013) the ensemble took the technical challenges of Vittriool and added theatricality. The piece, described as an “ethnographic fiction,” was compelling in its sheer goofy audacity, featuring an invented language of grunts and clicks, a rhythmic backdrop of sighs and exhales, a forgotten folk melody hovering over a noise like twigs snapping. At the end of the piece, composer Gabriel Dharmoo stepped onstage to well-deserved applause.
The concert concluded with two works, The Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart Note Book (2011) by Lars Peter Hagen and Paddy Reilly Runs with the Devil (2007) by Jennifer Walshe, for which the performers set aside their considerable skill in favor of an intentionally amateurish aesthetic. It was a difficult thing to process: a theatrical show of humility. Perhaps what was most jarring was the contrast with the intense display of artistry in the rest of the performance. The members of the ensemble wanted to show that they, too, had imperfections—and the audience was not prepared to let them.
MARSHALL YARBROUGH is the Brooklyn Rail’s assistant music editor.