Voices of the Americas: Ekmeles leads a wide-ranging polyphonic vocal tour

Sat Mar 05, 2022 at 2:07 pm
By George Grella
The vocal ensemble Ekmeles performed on Friday night at St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church in Manhattan.

The Americas Society maintains a fairly unsung but high quality, and free, concert series, limited conceptually and aesthetically only by the generous confines of North and South America. The means music of all styles and eras, and Friday night that included the vocal group Ekmeles, which focuses on modern and contemporary music, especially new works. This program had pieces by Hilda Paredes, Tania León, excerpts of Mauricio Kagel’s Der Turm zu Babel, and a work in progress from Marc Sabat.

Concerts are usually at the Americas Society address on Park Avenue, but this performance had the excellent setting of the Gothic St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church on West End Avenue. The vaulted reverb of a place like this is always ideal for a vocal group, and the slight haze of incense made for a visual chiaroscuro that mirrored the music.

Much of the program had Ekmeles working with dissonances and non-standard tunings, at both close and distant intervals, the group producing its own smoky sound to fill the space with broad swathes and tiny details. This was music as texture, not just the blend of vocal timbres and pitches but the shaping and reshaping of words. Everything balanced on that last point.

The English translation of Kagel’s title is The Tower of Babel, and his piece is a musical depiction of the Biblical story. He conveys it with charming simplicity, alternating between melodious wordless singing and something like modern recitative, in which parts of the story are broken down into different languages. Ekmeles opened with an excerpt and then, using a shifting lineup of singers, performed a different excerpt as something like an intermezzo between each of the other works.

Kagel’s melodies are wonderful, and it was simply a great pleasure to hear this music. The excerpts were also effective as transitions, too, an avant-garde theatrical framing that illuminated technical aspects of the other selections.

Paredes’ Fragmentos de Altazor employed more complex tunings and chords. Drawing on a long text in Spanish by the poet Vicente Huidobro, the music compressed the words into an intriguing, dense mass, with repetitions of “Altazor” on a downward curve at the work’s center. This was a beautiful, sensual chaos evoking the avant-garde (in their day) of Renaissance madrigals.

León’s De-Orishas had some of the same quality but was both more contemporary and tougher, with tough chords — brick-like and also somewhat difficult to tune — and angular intervals. This was polyphony filtered through folk and popular idioms, a concise and satisfying piece. It was also good to hear Ekmeles move from concentration on just a beautiful sound to more rhythmic inflections and articulations.

After another Kagel excerpt, Ekmeles finished with Sabat’s Seeds of skies, alibis, which the group’s leader, baritone Jeffrey Gavett, introduced as both something commissioned from the composer and only part one of what he hoped would be a longer work. Based on text adapted from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, this 40 minute work was in a basic A-B-A form, with a long prologue, followed by an extended dramatic passage, then finishing with the return of the opening music.

Sabat works with alternate tuning systems and microtonality, making music that is both surprising but also elegant and deeply appealing. That was the quality of the prologue, with extended tones juxtaposed against each other in shimmering, gripping sequences. As long as the music just sat there and grew and glowed, it was compelling. The main substance of the piece, though, was essentially a dramatic reading, using intoned speech, of the text, and this simply was not effective. Taken on its own, this oration may work in a theatrical performance, but it led the work away from Sabat’s strengths. It was a letdown that lasted until the prologue material returned, and one heard the composer’s voice again. But it’s a work in progress, so there’s room for change.

The Orchestra of St. Luke’s plays new music by young composers, 7 p.m., March 11, at the Americas Society as-coa.org

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