Listeners of a certain age undoubtedly remember hearing their elders complain that contemporary classical music is bitter, difficult and unappealing, perhaps even purposely so. Those of us who liked the stuff spent lots of time trying to explain the music and how to come to terms with it, while also arguing that focusing only on pre-modern works would turn a living art form into a museum. But deep down, we understood their complaint: They wanted to be moved by works written in a musical language they understood.

That view has resounded with the last few generations of composers. Rejecting the new-music orthodoxies of their predecessors and seeing equal value in warring new-music styles like Serialism and Minimalism, as well as in jazz, rock and World Music, they have been creating stylistically omnivorous works that are appealing but not simplistic, and that listeners want to hear. As a result, new music has lately become a growth industry in the classical music world.

That’s the theory, anyway, and you could not have wished for clearer proof of its validity than the concert Roomful of Teeth performed on Thursday evening at the University of Southern Maine’s Hannaford Hall in Portland. The ensemble, presented by Portland Ovations, is a vocal group (an octet, in this instance, but expands when necessary) founded in 2009 and devoted to music by composers who prize consonance and melody as much as rhythmic and contrapuntal complexity. The concert was sold out, and the audience, which appeared to span the age gamut, seemed delighted.

Missy Mazzoli’s “Vesper Sparrow” (2012), which opened the program, was a fine introduction to what these virtuoso singers can do. A setting of Farnoosh Fathi’s short, darkly nuanced poem, “Home State,” with its undercurrent of menace amid dreaminess, the piece begins wordlessly, with a syllabic text – Mazzoli describes it as an “imaginary birdsong” – that begins in the sopranos and altos and travels to the male voices (tenor, baritone, bass-baritone and bass).

By the time Mazzoli’s setting of the poem itself begins, the singers have created a rhythmically dense, interlocking texture in which vocal tone morphs almost constantly before reaching what turns out to be a temporary stopping point, built on a sustained, richly harmonized chord.

Mazzoli’s piece was one of several overtly but artfully political works on the program. Ted Hearne’s “Coloring Book” (2015) is a setting of texts by Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin and Claudia Rankine, all Black American writers who captured their experience of race directly. Roomful of Teeth sang the work’s fourth movement, “Letter to My Father,” based on a section of Hurston’s 1928 poem, “How It Feels To Be Colored Me,” in which inventive wordplay scarcely masks a sense of pained separation (and separateness).

Hearne conveys that pain by making it seem matter-of-fact within a texture that requires the singing to sound almost instrumental at first, with chords punched out assertively, and solo voices sailing over chordal textures or, at times, standing briefly alone.

The work’s undercurrent of racial tension was reprised in Toby Twining’s “Dumas’ Riposte” (2016), which juxtaposes Zsuzsanna Ardó’s “Ultramarine and Sienna” – a poem that offers the imagined thoughts of a slave on a slave ship – and the 19th-century mixed-race French author Alexandre Dumas’ confidently dismissive response to a racial epithet. Twining’s score uses assertive, thick counterpoint and glancingly jazz-tinged melodies to weave the texts together while also keeping each clear.

The program also included “Run Away” (2009), a short but magical work by Judd Greenstein that featured some superb, style-hopping solo work by Virginia Warnken Kelsey, an alto in the group. Caroline Shaw, another of the group’s altos – and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for her “Partita for Eight Voices” – supplied “The Isle” (2016), a rich, stylistically freewheeling setting of monologues from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” with harmonically dense passages giving way to melodic angularity and then choral counterpoint that would not be out of place in a Renaissance Mass.

William Brittelle’s “Psychedelics” (2017) expanded the group’s stylistic palette further, adding hints of mock-operatic style and odd sound effects (vocal as well as electronic) to its arsenal. And Merrill Garbus, best known as one of the singer-composers in the group Tune-Yards, drew on Eastern European choral styles – as well as, it seemed, the rhythmically vital style of the African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo – in her “Ansa Ya” (2011).

For its encore, the ensemble joined forces with Pihcintu, a Portland youth choir that brings together immigrants from war-torn countries – as well as with the audience, which was given a rhythmically complex passage to sing – on another of Garbus’ multicultural works, “Quizassa.”

Brad Wells, the artistic director of Roomful of Teeth, led the encore, as well as the Hearne and Shaw works. For the rest, the ensemble performed unconducted.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: kozinn

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