On Saturday, February 25th, Roomful of Teeth gave an exciting concert on the Ecstatic Music Festival at Merkin Hall. But just who is this group with a fantastic name and what sets them apart from other vocal ensembles? In an interview with WBUR (Boston’s NPR news station), Caleb Burhans, a composer who has written for them, contends that, “Roomful of Teeth…can sing anything extremely well and in any style, and on top of that, imagine a choir that yodels and throat sings and does all these crazy things, and they do that equally as well as they do singing like Renaissance polyphony. They’re just a phenomenally talented group of singers….” Strong praise, it’s true, but given what these fantastic vocalists demonstrated in their February 25th performance, this vocal octet most certainly deserves those accolades and more.
Roomful of Teeth was founded in 2009 by Brad Wells (the group’s music director) to “bring the full range of the human voice back together.” To that end, the group incorporates vocal techniques from countless diverse styles from around the world (everything from pop belting to yodeling to tuvan throat singing, to Sardinian and Korean vocal techniques, to vocal percussion effects are included), and seamlessly blending those styles with the beauty and purity of tone that they bring to Western choral repertoire. In fact, a number of the pieces on this program perfectly highlighted both of these strengths, shifting rapidly between dissonant and angular fragments, sometimes on pitch, sometimes not, and lush, full choral effects. The demand for precision was intense, as only seconds separated sudden movement from yelps, growls, shouts, and spoken text to tonal, lyrical phrases. In addition, the vast repertoire of the group’s sounds was overwhelming and the thought of “How the heck did they do that?” crossed my mind not a few times that evening. Featured composers included Sarah Kirkland Snider, Caroline Shaw (an alto in the group), Rinde Eckert, Merrill Garbus, Judd Greenstein, and, most notably, Cameron Mesirow of Glasser, a composer-singer whose music was the focus of the program’s second half. Meisrow’s vocals have a fragile and untrained quality and were the perfect vehicle for her pensive love ballads (the pre-recorded electronic instrumentals of which were played over the house sound system), and her seeming ingenuousness and gracious acknowledgement of the audience was charming besides. Glasser’s music was especially powerful when accompanied by the ROT vocalists, and I hope that this performance encourages future collaborations between the two groups.
While all of Roomful of Teeth’s singers are fantastic musicians and virtuosi soloists in their own right, two really stood out. In particular, Esteli Gomez, a soprano with a floating, angelic voice and a powerful presence, sang breathtakingly lovely solos. The energetic mezzo-soprano Virginia Warnken was another vocal standout, using her sultry lower register to great effect especially in Sarah Kirkland Snider’s “The Guest” and Merrill Garbus’s “Ansa Ya.”
Roomful of Teeth and Glasser’s collaboration offered a musically thrilling performance to those fortunate enough to be in the room. For anyone who missed the show, the entire audio of the performance is available on Q2’s website. To learn more about Glasser, visit: www.glassermusic.com
Lauren Alfano is a New York-based soprano, http://www.laurenalfanosoprano.com.
Caleb Burhans, Cameron Mesirow, Caroline Shaw, Ecstatic Music Festival, Glasser, Judd Greenstein, Merrill Garbus, Rinde Eckert, Roomful of Teeth, Sarah Kirkland Snider