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    Roomful of Teeth mesmerizes at MIT

    Roomful of Teeth won a Grammy last January for the ensemble’s eponymous first album.
    nicholas whitman
    Roomful of Teeth won a Grammy last January for the ensemble’s eponymous first album.

    CAMBRIDGE — Founded in 2009 by director Brad Wells, Roomful of Teeth is dedicated to exploring new vocal techniques, everything from Inuit and Tuvan throat singing to yodeling. Already this octet has an enviable résumé. Last year, member Caroline Shaw became the youngest ever winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music, receiving the award for her “Partita for 8 Voices.” And last January, the debut album “Roomful of Teeth” received a Grammy in the Chamber Music/Small Ensemble category. Friday Roomful came to MIT’s Kresge Auditorium to perform two premieres: Elena Ruehr’s a cappella opera “Cassandra in the Temples” and “Borderland: A Cantata for Ukraine,” by Christine Southworth and Evan Ziporyn.

    The libretto for “Cassandra,” by Gretchen E. Henderson, is a poetic reverie full of wordplay, with titles like “Praying off Prey” and “Of Whales, Wails, and Winds.” Yet it doesn’t actually tell the story of Cassandra, how the god Apollo gave her the gift of prophecy and then, after she spurned him, saw to it that no one would believe her. The program booklet offered the complete text, and it was projected on a screen behind the singers, but none of the listed “characters” — who included Apollo, Athena, Laocoön, Agamemnon, and Clytemnestra — materialized. Perhaps they will if and when the opera is staged.

    The best moments came in the two “moon” pieces, “Awaiting the Moon” and “The Moon at Sea,” where Ruehr’s nebulous harmonies and extravagant polyphony conjured wind and wave and flights of birds and refracted moonlight. But over 40 minutes, the wordplay, with almost no narrative direction, grew a little cloying.

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    “Borderland,” a 20-minute piece in four sections, offered texts in Dutch, Malay, Russian, Ukrainian, and Crimean Tatar. There were fragments from the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and from Ukrainian- Russian rebel transmissions, and poetry from Ukraine and Crimea. It all evoked pity, but nothing more, and the jittery, chopped-up music made the projected text difficult to follow. Nice touches included the ostinato-like repetitions of the Dutch for “vanish” and the Russian for “Where are we?”

    The saucy “Allemande” from Shaw’s “Partita for 8 Voices” provided some welcome levity, the singers combining geometry (“To the side,” “To the midpoint”) with square dancing (“Allemande left and right”) before swinging into a fugal treatment of “The detail of the pattern is movement,” from T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton.” Judd Greenstein’s more straightforward “Run Away” featured a clarion solo from Virginia Warnken, and Wells’s “Otherwise” was anchored by a resonant Dashon Burton. The premieres were intriguing, but it was the performers who starred, Roomful of Teeth creating a roomful of voices.

    Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.