Zachary Lewis: Swingle Singers ‘almost too dazzling’

The Swingle Singers — from left, Clare Wheeler, Oliver Griffiths, Joanna Goldsmith-Eteson, Kevin Fox, Christopher Jay, Sara Brimer and Trist Ethan Curless — perform Tuesday evening in the Amphitheater. Photo by Michelle Kanaar.

Zachary Lewis | Guest Critic

When is a lack actually a strength? When the subject in question is the Swingle Singers, the featured act Tuesday night at the Amphitheater, the lack of instruments is the opposite of a weakness: it’s their stock in trade, their luminous defining trait. Instruments would only get in their way.

Performing to a large crowd on an idyllic evening, the Swingle Singers reminded Chautauquans why, 50 years after their founding, they continue to rank as one of the finest a capella ensembles on the planet. In evidence here was a seamless blend most other vocal groups would envy, as well as a versatility from which many a musical artist might take a lesson. Their roots may be classical, but they’re also well-versed in jazz, pop and rock.

A version of the phenomenon that drives fans at rock concerts up a wall transpired with the Swingle Singers as well. Namely, they drew heavily on newer material, especially during the first half, performing one of the colorful arrangements of classical music for which they’re renowned only occasionally.

Their program, titled “Voice Fusions: Reinventing the Feel,” did make time for a few signature works, including Bach’s “Badinerie,” Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” De Falla’s “Nana” and a comical pastiche of Donizetti arias in which soprano Sara Brimer nearly burst a lung.

The Swingle Singers warm up backstage at the Amphitheater before the performance. Much of the program was devoted to recent and contemporary music, often in the group’s own arrangements. Photo by Michelle Kanaar.

In truth, it’s hard to complain about anything coming out of the Swingle Singers’ mouths. With just about every breath, each of its seven members (two sopranos, one alto, two tenors, one baritone and one bass) displayed senses of harmony and balance almost too dazzling to comprehend. Somehow, the London-based ensemble managed both to tune out and to listen closely to each other at the same time, all while executing a fair amount of physical choreography.

No matter the repertoire, the Swingle Swingers always do something few other vocal groups do: provide their own accompaniment. While one or more singers handled the melody Tuesday, others simulated the sounds of snare drums, string basses, maracas and every manner of electronic effect. At times, an observer outside the Amp would have sworn he was hearing a live funk band.

Rarer still was the group’s willingness to engage the audience. Twice during the concert, the singers took a break and invited the crowd to take part in a sonic experiment, wherein they told us — once, without speaking a single word — what sounds to make, and then we put it all together. What better way to let listeners experience how hard, and how fun, what they do really is.

And the crowd seemed to love it. Asked by one of the Swingle Singers to express appreciation without clapping, listeners responded by banging the pews, clicking their tongues, and even barking like the dogs in the distance.

Much of the program was devoted to recent and contemporary music, often in their own arrangements. The first half, for instance, opened with a spine-tingling Turkish folk song, then quickly jetted around the globe to haunting renditions of “After the Storm” by Mumford and Sons, and Nick Drake’s “River Man,” a flowing melody set above a lightly dissonant base.

No less astonishing were the second-half arrangements. The lyrics and basic melodies of The Beatles’ “Lady Madonna,” Beyonce’s “Single Ladies,” and “Woman in Chains” by Tears for Fears were all familiar, but in the hands of the Swingle Singers, the songs took on welcome new identities.

Their program even drew to a close better than most. With a moving rendition of “Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” the mood turned gently solemn, only to be reignited moments later by a show-stopping account of Piazzolla’s “Libertango” and a rousing encore performance of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.”

But the coup de grace was their final number: “Blackbird” by The Beatles. With that, an adieu so familiar and so ideally suited to the late hour, the group flipped the tables on the crowd, turning all their listeners on the stroll home.

Zachary Lewis is music critic of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio.

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