Bach in a world without instruments

Swingle Singers open Al Bustan Festival Tuesday evening. Photo by Carla Halal, courtesy of Al Bustan

BEIT MERI, Lebanon: Well in advance of the “Pitch Perfect” franchise – even before Bobby McFerrin implored residents of the late twentieth century, “Don’t worry. Be happy!” – a cappella song lovers had The Swingle Singers.

Founded by Ward Swingle in swinging 1962, the London-based vocal ensemble specialized in instrument-free renderings of the vocal and instrumental works of JS Bach.

Some 55 years, several lineup changes and repertoire augmentations later, the Swingles are still at it. The ever-youthful group opened the Bach-themed 25th edition of Al Bustan Festival Tuesday evening at the Emile Bustani Auditorium with a program spanning the sixteenth to the twenty-first centuries.

“A cappella” means “in chapel style,” they say, and the experience of listening to a Swingles performance (recorded or live) is not unlike that of a choir in an antique church service. It’s not that the four-man, three-woman ensemble recite from the Latin mass – or indulge in hectoring moralism – but their playlist and choral technique are smooth as silk and soothing, without a trace of dissonance to distract you from the impression that you’re being aurally cuddled.

That’s not to say the Swingles’ Bustan opener was a solemn affair.

The opening number was a mischievous pairing of Bach’s music – “Quia Respexit,” from his “Magnificat” – with “Two Sisters,” a dark Irish poem about a pair of siblings who want the same fellow, and the extremes to which one sister (the more diabolical one) will go to get what she wants.

After five minutes or so (none of the tunes in this evening’s program run longer than that) the Swingles bend their throats to JSB’s D minor Fugue, which – as the lanky baritone-cum-beatbox Kevin Fox informs his audience – was the first track on The Swingle Singers’ very first LP.

Tuesday evening’s show was marbled with Bach excerpts but the concert was not comprised exclusively of JSB material, nor strictly a cappella.

Many of the Swingle’s best-loved Bach settings have a swinging jazz inflection and their harmonizing works as well with a Paul Simon (and Garfunkel) or Lennon-McCartney number, a contemporary pop or traditional folk tune.

The vocalists are also adept at imitating a wide range of instruments. Fox and basso Edward Randell demonstrated this skill most entertainingly with their duet “Drum and Bass demo,” which saw Fox play a game of call-and-response with the audience, until his scat calls grew so complicated that the terraces’ replies were reduced to perplexed giggles.

“Drum and Bass demo” was a of highlight of the evening, as was “The Diva Aria” – from Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” via Luc Besson’s 1997 sci-fi flick “The Fifth Element – featuring soprano Sara Davey.

While individual vocalists expressed due reverence to JSB, the 2018 iteration of The Swingle Singers seem more enthusiastic about contemporary pop tunes they’ve arranged for a cappella, including a couple of in-house compositions.

Al Bustan’s program included a number folk tunes arranged for contemporary voice and among the show stoppers was an ensemble setting of the Finnish traditional number “Bucmis,” which returned Sara Davey to center stage.

The concert didn’t end in Finnish, of course, or in German. That privilege went to Lennon and McCartney’s “Blackbird.”

Al Bustan continues at Saint-Elie Church, Qantari, on Feb. 18 with Bach’s “Saint John Passion,” featuring the Collegium Musicale Choir and Corelli Baroque Orchestra under the baton of Gianluca Marcian?.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 16, 2018, on page 16.




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