Sunday, April 27, 2014

Collected Stories: Spirit - Tuvan Throat Singing & Pärt - 04/23/14

Tuvan Throat Singing - Huun-Huur-Tu
Pärt: Passio
Conductor: Julian Wachner
Jesus: Dashon Burton
Pilatus: Dashon Phan
Organ: Renée Anne Louprette
Oboe: ToniMarie Marchioni
Bassoon: Shelley Monroe Huang
Violin: Emily Popham Gillins
Cello: Saeunn Thorsteinsdóttir
Choir of Trinity Wall Street

After our fun little escapade at Brooklyn's Roulette the night before, on Wednesday evening my friend Linden and I found ourselves within the much more familiar structure of Carnegie Hall, even if our concert was taking place underground in the less often patronized, smaller and oh so cool Zankel Hall, for the "Spirit" evening of the week-long "Collected Stories" festival curated by composer David Lang.
Throat singing does not present itself like your everyday musical cup of tea, even for the most esoteric-minded, and my brief, first and only experience of it over 10 years ago during The Smithsonian Folklife Festival focusing on The Silk Road in Washington, DC had not entirely convinced me of its artistic value. On the other hand, an opportunity to hear anything by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is something that I simply cannot turn down, especially when the work on the program is his rarely performed Passio. So it was still with great expectations and even greater curiosity that we happily left the office early to be there for the 6 PM starting time.

In its decade of existence Zankel Hall has probably witnessed the most unusual sounds ever produced in the Carnegie Hall complex, so it was only natural that it would host such a peculiar ensemble as the Tuvan throat singers/musicians Huun-Huur-Tu (whose name means, of all things, "Separation of Light Rays on the Prairie") on Wednesday. And all for the better. As much as the mercilessly guttural opening number was brutally harsh on my Western ears, to my endless surprise I quickly adjusted to the wide-ranging, truly amazing sounds that the singers were able to create from their vocal chords thanks to a highly developed breathing technique and, in all likelihood, a lot of practice, practice, practice. I ended up feeling in genuine awe of their unique talent. The songs were apparently about elements of nature, such as animals and landscapes, occasionally enhanced by a folk-like string accompaniment, and they all came out sounding earthy and spiritual at the same time for a strangely fascinating performance.
After such a deeply throaty journey, hearing the first celestially minimalist notes of Pärt's Passio felt like entering a brand new world. Boldly setting the whole piece based on John's Gospel as a 70-minute uninterrupted composition and resolutely dismissing any easy musical or dramatic effects, Pärt offered a gift of unsurpassed rigorous beauty to the world. With that in mind, the various musicians and singers at Zankel on Wednesday night dutifully toed the line, continuously keeping a low profile while creating a crystal clear, mesmerizingly austere texture more reminiscent than not of Gregorian chant. Baritone Dashon Burton was an excellent Jesus, his overall restraint making his assured singing all the more captivating, and tenor Nicholas Phan's voice came out remarkably bright and strong as Pilate. Casual listening was not recommended, but with a minimum of attention, the reward was priceless.

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