- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2008

The sound of voices rising in song, unaccompanied by instruments, is one of the most ancient and universal forms of music. Through the centuries, a cappella music (the name is Italian for “in the chapel style”) has blossomed into countless varieties all over the world, from Gregorian chant to barbershop quartets to tribal throat singing.

It’s not often that the opportunity comes along to sample that remarkable diversity, but starting Wednesday, the Kennedy Center is presenting “A Cappella: Singing Solo,” an unusual 10-day festival featuring more than a dozen of the world’s top voice-only groups.

“A cappella music can mean so many different things, depending on where it’s from,” says Garth Ross, the Kennedy Center’s director of programming for performing arts for everyone. “When you see the doo-wop of the Persuasions, and then the gospel harmonies of Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, and then the throat singing of the group Aqsarniit,you see how much diversity there is and that this music comes out of very different contexts.”

The festival, from Wednesday through June 6, is global in scope, with singers coming from the Czech Republic, Norway, Mexico, South Africa and across the United States; most of the events are free. Sweet Honey in the Rock, a unique, must-hear group that draws on everything from spirituals and African chants to ancient lullabies and rap, opens the festival Wednesday with a free 6 p.m. concert at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. Groups will perform nightly during the festival.

The centerpiece of the festival will be “A World of Voices” in the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall on June 1. Hosted by 10-time Grammy winner Bobby McFerrin, it promises to be a virtual a cappella summit, with groups including Chanticleer, dubbed “the world’s reigning male chorus” by the New Yorker magazine; South Africa’s renowned Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who famously recorded with Paul Simon on his “Graceland” album; the remarkable Bulgarian group of female singers called Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares, and more.

“It’s a rare opportunity to hear the practitioners of all these different styles,” Mr. Ross says. “And at the end, Bobby McFerrin is going to orchestrate some sort of improvisational interaction among all the groups.”

Interest in a cappella music has been steadily rising during the past two decades (especially on college campuses, where the groups are ubiquitous) due in large part to Mr. McFerrin himself.

Since bursting on the scene in the 1980s, the 58-year-old singer has emerged as one of the most innovative and popular vocal improvisers, modernizing the genre, bringing in new listeners and opening terrain that younger singers are continuing to explore.

Since the roots of a cappella music extend deep into classical music, as well, the festival includes performances of ancient music by groups such as the Trio Mediaeval (a Norwegian all-female ensemble) and the male chorus Cantus, who will be performing Friday in the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. They will be followed the next night by I Fagiolini, an innovative British group: They’ve become renowned for their lively, theatrical performances of Renaissance and baroque music, as well as more contemporary works.

Another big event will come at the festival’s closing concert, June 6, when the Manhattan Transfer will bring its trademark mixture of jazz, pop and big-band styles to the Millennium Stage.

Some of the most unusual singing may occur the previous night, when the Inuit group Aqsarniit, drawing on traditional throat-singing techniques, will perform a kind of “game-singing” in which they stand close to each other and engage in friendly singing competitions, often imitating the sounds of nature — certainly one of the most unique programs the Kennedy Center will put on all year.

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The free Millennium Stage concerts begin at 6 p.m.: Sweet Honey in the Rock, Wednesday; Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, Thursday; Paschall Brothers and Persuasions, Friday; Four Betty’s and Max Q, May 31; Jitro Czech Girls Choir, June 1; Choirs of Washington National Cathedral and Suspicious Cheese Lords, June 2; Sil’hooettes, University of Virginia, and Exit 245, James Madison University, June 3; Singing Sergeants and Army Chorus, June 4; Aqsarniit and the Cherokee National Youth Choir, June 5; and the Man-hattan Transfer, June 6.

WHAT: “A CAPPELLA: SINGING SOLO”

WHERE: Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall, Terrace Theater and Millennium Stage

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