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Music Reviews : Electric Phoenix Ensemble at CalArts

February 11, 1988|JOHN HENKEN

Extended vocal techniques are an arcane, often willfully silly, yet vigorous and productive art, and Electric Phoenix is one of the most accomplished practitioners thereof. Tuesday evening, the London-based ensemble sang a tight, symmetrically structured program at Disney Hall, CalArts.

Relatively new works bracketed older choral selections on each half. William Brooks' four sly, endlessly inventive Madrigals from 1978 are now classics, and were treated as such in a bravura performance opening the evening.

At the other end of the agenda was "I Sing the Body Electric," an imposing three-movement symphony for voices by Daryl Runswick, the ensemble's tenor. Trevor Wishart's "Vox II" proved a moody pastoral soundscape, relying more on taped animal sounds than its oddly disinterested vocal lines, while "Gere Curam Mei Finis" by David Bedford worked most effectively in quoting Mozart.

At the very least, however, those pieces all produced an abundance of unusual, challenging effects within clearly articulated forms. Soprano Judith Rees, mezzo Meriel Dickinson--who sang her first concert as a member of Electric Phoenix Saturday--Runswick and bass Terry Edwards gave every assignment natural, expressive point, singing with concentrated conviction and controlled elan.

Electronics are an integral part of their art, and technician John Whiting was an active participant in the performances. The singing was all amplified and given a plush cushion of artificial reverberation. Prerecorded tapes and/or live processing of several types figured in most of the repertory.

The older, mostly polychoral pieces, by Purcell, Jacob Handl, Britten and Messiaen, used tapes to supply the missing parts and reverberation to suggest cathedral acoustics, in graceful performances. A Lassus madrigal was the lone encore.

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