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
1 Comment

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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