The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: After almost three decades, Anonymous Four will break up and retire after the 2015-16 season. The Ear is sure glad he heard them sing LIVE at the Madison Early Music Festival in 2012.

May 18, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

I remember some purists complaining when, in 2012, the 13th annual Madison Early Music Festival had booked the a cappella singing group  Anonymous Four (below, in a photo by Dario Acosta) to open the festival in July, which focused that year on early North American and colonial American music.

Anonymous Four CR Dario Acosta

The complaints ran that the guest “star” singers didn’t really stick to the Colonial and Early American and Canadian repertoire set out by the festival’s theme that year — the complement to the previous year’s festival theme of South and Latin American music — that many of the songs they performed dated from later than the “early music” title defined.

But the concert certainly drew a full, perhaps even sold-out house (below), I think probably the largest opening concert of any Madison Early Music Festival I have ever attended.

MEMF 2012 Anon 4 audience

And The Ear thought they were wonderful performers that allowed the audience to thoroughly enjoy themselves and the repertoire that did indeed run into the 19th century, that they performed. The cheers were deservedly loud and long.

Even the group’s name honors the countless nameless women composers and performers who have sat outside mainstream music history and musicology for so long. Plus, it also emphasizes getting along and the seamlessly tight ensemble work that the group was deservedly celebrated for. It celebrates the more greater musical value of collectivity rather than individuality.

Editor’s Note: This year, the 15th annual Madison Early Music Festival features century Italian music  1300-1600, with an emphasis on the 14th century and ties to the other Papacy in Avignon, France, and will run this summer July 12-19. It will features the usual workshops for participants plus seven public concerts including the second annual Handel Aria Competition, which last proved a really delightful sing-off smack-down. Here is a link to the MEMF website, which will be featured on this blog a bit later:

http://continuingstudies.wisc.edu/conferences/madison-early-music-festival/index.html?source=madisonearlymusic.org

And here is a link to that review The Ear wrote when the Anonymous Four sang at the Madison Early Music Festival in 2012 (below) taking turns as soloists, duets, trios and full quartets:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/07/09/classical-music-the-madison-early-music-festival-opens-with-anonymous-4-and-wows-a-record-crowd/

MEMF 2012 Anon 4 duet

RETIREMENT IS PENDING

But like many other groups –- including the Tokyo String Quartet and the Guarneri String Quartet –- the members of the Anonymous Four have reached they age where they are tired of endless touring, recording some 20 albums and now want to settle down and into other things.

So the group will disband at the end of the 2015-16 season. They said they would do so once before, about a decade ago, but this time they are apparently serious about it.

Who can blame them? Three decades is a long time to spend touring on the road, selecting and rehearsing  repertoire, and recording songs in a studio. At bottom is one of the group’s many YouTube videos, the done with the most hits (over 100,000) that features Medieval English chant and  polyphony. It really spotlights the purity and clarity of their a cappella  singing and how there is absolutely no weak link in their chain of music. But many others are also noteworthy and deserve listening, including recordings of Hildegard von Bingen and “Shall We Gather at The River” are among  the group’s popular audio-visual samples..

Here is a link to the group’s own website:

http://www.anonymous4.com

Here are stories about the Anonymous Four, the breakup, retirement and the group’s history, with a good sampling of their range from Medieval and Renaissance music to colonial American music (below) and contemporary compositions and commissions. Much of what they sang in Madison came from the best-seedling CD “American Angels.”

MEMF Anonymous 4 American Angels CD

Here is a link to the outstanding story on NPR and its first-rate blog Deceptive Cadence” that also features an exclusive preview of their last CD recording:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/05/13/311087203/anonymous-4-breaking-up-is-hard-to-do-but-theyre-doing-it

LESSONS?

Increasing, I think there is a lesson to be learned here.

At a time when so many local performing groups and arts presenters, including the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, keep offering many of the same soloists –- both because they are reliable and dependably excellent performers and because they are affordable -– it is a refreshing reminder than presenting new soloists and new performers is laudable in itself.

We need to experience new performers. We never know when a single performer or even an ensemble will die or retire or become too expensive or whatever. But if we have heard them, then at least we can say: I am glad I had a chance to hear them live before it was too late.

And, boy, I am glad I had a chance to hear the Anonymous Four not only through recordings, but also in person.

And as many readers pointed out during the current discord and controversy about Wisconsin Public Radio canceling the live statewide broadcast of “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” after 36 years, there is a huge difference between studio and recorded music versus live performances.

Here is a link to the post about the WPR decision. Be sure to read the post – it brought in more than four times the usual amount of “traffic” or “hits” and readers — but also to read the comments by readers, which set a record for the number and length.

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/05/08/classical-music-news-wisconsin-public-radio-has-cancelled-the-sunday-afternoon-live-from-the-chazen-free-chamber-music-series-after-36-years-of-success-other-classical-music-from-a/

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Classical music: Critic John W. Barker says Eliza’s Toyes impressively surveyed early British music while exploring the religious shift from Latin Catholicism to English Anglicanism. Plus, acclaimed Italian conductor Claudio Abbado dies at 80.

January 21, 2014
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NEWS: As you have probably heard by now, the acclaimed Italian conductor Claudio Abbado (below) has died at 80. Here are links to some stories about this maestro who had such a varied and prolific career:

The New York Times

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/21/arts/music/claudio-abbado-italian-conductor-dies-at-80.html?_r=0

The Washington Post:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/claudio-abbado-age-italian-conductor-who-led-european-orchestras-into-modern-era/2014/01/20/d23c267c-30f7-11e3-8627-c5d7de0a046b_story.html

Claudio Abbado

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

It was a great pity that no more than 25 people turned out at the Gates of Heaven on Sunday afternoon for the latest program offered by Jerry Hui’s early-music group, Eliza’s Toyes (below, inside Gates of Heaven).

His program this time was a post-Christmas survey of English sacred music. The range of material ran from late-Medieval three-voice pieces through composers of the early 17th century, adding up to 13 selections in all.

Toyes in Gates - 2

This is the kind of music most regularly performed by a choir of some or another size, sometimes of mixed voices, sometimes in the British-cathedral style of all-male voices, with boys on the upper parts.

Hui (below) fielded a consort of six singers (three female, three male), so that each item was sung one singer per part — with a couple cases of a little doubling, I believe. While the result favored clarity against sonority, it must be said that, in certain full-textured items, some very lovely sonority was achieved.

Jerry Hui

My principal reservation was that the ordering of the program seemed aimed at a smooth variety of sounds, rather than at a demonstration of the momentous changes in English sacred composition. The key to those changes was the liturgical shift in the Anglican Reformation from motets setting traditional Latin texts to the new anthems with English texts.

The shift could be noted in the dominant composer of the program, the great William Byrd (1540-1623, below), represented by two Latin motets, and then an English anthem. “Sing joyfully”, which served as the dazzling finale (see the YouTube video at the bottom).

William Byrd

Byrd’s teacher, and then partner, Thomas Tallis (below), likewise spanned the reforming shifts, but was heard in one Latin motet, “O scrum convivium”, and a gorgeously harmonized Latin hymn, “O nata lux de lumina”. Earliest in the pre-Reformation lineup was Robert Fayrfax (1464-1521), whose five-voice setting of the Magnificat was in the traditional alternatim setting (odd-numbered verses of the canticle sung in chant, the even-numbered ones set polyphonically).

Thomas Tallis

On the other hand, a poignant victim of the Reformation was Peter Philips (1560-1628, below), a staunch Roman Catholic who fled his homeland for a successful career in Catholic music on the Continent. His five-voice “O beatum et sacrosanctum Deum” made a noble closer to the first part of the program.

Peter Philips

As for the Anglican, English-language composers, besides the case of Byrd, and besides the 15th-century para-liturgal songs, we had a rousing anthem by Christopher Tye (1505-1573, below top), “A sound of angels,” and, finally, a six-voice secular piece, “Music divine”, by the last survivor of the great era of Tudor music, Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656, below bottom).

christopher tye bw small

Thomas Tompkins

The six singers who have been making up Eliza’s Toyes have settled into a beautifully balanced and smooth ensemble. They listen to, and sing in sync with, each other. There is nothing else like them, as a continuing performing group for early sacred ensemble music in Madison. Although he is a UW-Madison graduate who now teaches at University of Wisconsin- Stout, Hui has kept up his association with the group, convinced of its need for continuity.

It is one more of those blessings that make Madison’s musical life so wonderfully rich!

 

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