The mid to late 1980’s played host to a remarkable renaissance of a cappella music of all genres and styles. In the popular vein there was a host of groups like The Bobs, The Nylons, Rockapella and Take 6 who combined human voices and interesting texts in their own unique ways. Taking the prize for what would previously have been thought as the least likely to become a runaway bestseller was the resurgence of Gregorian Chant. The Benedictine Monks released an authentic recording simply entitled “Chant” that had everyone scratching their head as to why it became such a big seller. Although they preceded this recording, the female vocal quartet known as Anonymous 4 rode this wave of a public that could not get enough of simple, unadorned, naked singing. They became, and continue to be, one of the biggest sellers for the Harmonia Mundi label.
Most of their career and recordings has been spent performing the very rarified medieval chants and masses from the 13th and 14th centuries. Occasionally, they would venture forth from those ancient times, skip over 600 years and end up commissioning and performing works by John Tavener, Steve Reich, Peter Maxwell Davies and Richard Rodney Bennett. Even with this modern twist to their usual repertoire, the current collaboration and tour seems to be the most unlikely of musical bedfellows. Anonymous 4, along with fiddler/mandolinist Darol Anger and guitarist Scott Nygaard, are on the “long time traveling” tour to publicize their new CD “Gloryland.” This recording, along with Anonymous 4’s previous CD “American Angels” (no instrumentalists corrupting that one), is a departure for the women as they delve into songs of the British Isles and American spirituals, Appalachian songs, shape-note hymns, and old-timey melodies from sepia-colored Americana.
Violinist Darol Anger is one of the most versatile musicians on the scene today and may best be known as one of the founders of the groundbreaking Turtle Island String Quartet. If not the first, they are certainly the best and most authentic of classical ensembles who arrange and play jazz. All the members have backgrounds in jazz, can improvise as well as anyone, and have that certain style and feel that immediately lets you know that they are the real deal – not just reading notes.* Although guitarist Nygaard was certainly a capable musician and added some depth and ambience to the mix, it was Anger who brought forth the deep feeling of rural hardships, sadness, and lost love that makes this music so emotive.
Marsha Genesky, Susan Hellauer, Jacqueline Horner, and Johanna Maria Rose are the four women who make up the current lineup of Anonymous 4. Each of them has a vocal quality that is without equal – pure, impeccable intonation, with only the slightest hint of vibrato and then only used as an ornament and not a crutch. They blend in a heavenly mixture that seems impossible to attain once, yet they effortlessly reach that perfection 100% of the time. They were singing beautiful, if not slightly despairing songs that evoked simpler times yet universal emotions. The sound in Meymandi Hall was a stunningly clear mix that sounded like a pristine, natural acoustic everywhere in the hall.
In short, it was as perfect a performance that you could hear. So why, midway through the first half, was I becoming more and more bored and restless? Perfection is not always perfect. There was a lack of involvement and empathy with the text of these songs. The transparency and ethereal disengagement that work so well with prayers to the Virgin Mary fall flat when singing about longings of the flesh. This, along with the constant note-for-note movement of all voices at all times, gave the evening a sameness that didn’t do justice to the remarkable talents onstage.
The lack of program notes, and very little announcement from the stage regarding what they were singing or even the concept of their recent CD, further contributed to the “hands-off” feeling of the evening. Music critics, like federal judges, love to assert that they do not bring any pre-judgments or personal agendas to their decisions – that is clearly impossible. Unless you are significantly lacking the chops, technique almost always takes a back seat to the emotional commitment to the performance. A smaller dose of this concert would have been much more satisfying.
*The Turtle Island String Quartet appears at Duke University on February 1, 2007. See our calendar in mid-January for details.