Another round of applause for David Lang’s brilliant programming: his collected stories allows concertgoers to hear and see musical events that would be difficult, if not impossible, to seek out otherwise. This time, the audience witnessed Tuvan throat singing that seemed to defy the laws of nature and a Passion whose piercing voices shifted in ever unexpected directions. After the first night of Dr Lang’s concert series for Carnegie Hall, I was blown away by the power of the spoken human voice as both storyteller and unconventional musical instrument. This second concert demonstrated the wonder of the human voice when not speaking, as well as its capacity to convey spirituality.

Huun-Huur-Tu © Huun-Huur-Tu
Huun-Huur-Tu
© Huun-Huur-Tu

The first half of the program consisted of a series of songs performed by the Huun-Huur-Tu throat singing group. Employing khoomei, a style of singing that remains “a mystery to Western science”, each of the four performers was capable of producing up to four notes at once. It was almost unbelievable to watch and listen: at first I was convinced that there was something in the singers’ mouths or throats aiding this phenomenon. Yet they were creating these fascinating chords with only their throats and lungs — not even moving their lips for the most part. The lowest note was also usually the loudest, sounding like a grumbling treefrog, and then one would pick up on the harmonic series whistling and vibrating above this: high notes traipsing into strains of melody. Huun-Huur-Tu accomplished this in unison and as solos and sometimes while playing traditional instruments, too.

Instruments “reminiscent of the banjo and fiddle” were paired with the jaw harp and a shaman’s drum to create an accompaniment ranging from poppy to ethereal. During the first song, a continuous low croaking from the four vocalists was eventually joined by a dotted rhythm on the drum and light harmonization from the stringed instruments. During the fifth song of the evening — which was “about people, about nature” we were told before it began — the jaw harp joined the khoomei’s high notes with a series of chirrupping, cooing, and boinging. The combination of the serene throat singing with mellow guitar phrases and lightly rumbling bass drum resulted in a warm, calming effect. The interjection of vocal squawks every now and then amidst the bird-like whistling only added to the rain forest-like atmosphere. Between this and the upbeat encore came a song illustrating “how beautiful our area; how fast our horses”. It was a brisk and boisterous contrast to the preceding piece. The wide range of nature depicted through these likewise varied sounds demonstrated the inspiration and spirituality that these individuals found in their natural surroundings.

The second half of the evening consisted of Arvo Pärt’s Passio, a setting of the Gospel according to St John. The spirituality was much more distinct here, as the singers recited the familiar Latin account of the crucifixion of Christ. Soloists, as well as vocal ensemble TENET, were conducted by Julian Wachner through the 75-minute passion. The horizontally simple and vertically complex vocal lines were accompanied by organ, oboe, bassoon, violin, and cello. Nicholas Phan’s Pilate was skillfully sung and sensitively conveyed, and Dashon Burton was intense and solemn as Jesus. Both of their voices rose and fell with Renée Anne Louprette’s organ melodies murmuring beneath. A set of four evangelists narrated the interactions, infusing the text with subtle brutality, while the chorus recited their searing harmonies with a sense of urgency. Between statements and questions, the instrumentalists would interject their own delicate dialogue. Each note was determined by the syllables of the text, and each syllable was roughly the same length, creating a symmetrical though circular feel to the piece, which was performed without pause. While the repetition occasionally grew tedious, Mr Wachner’s immaculate conducting kept the emotion churning throughout. The last words of the Evangelists — “He gave up the ghost” — were punctuated with a long, heavy silence before the final chorus, glowing in its majesty, and a powerful “Amen.”