I’ve always loved early music: its polyphony, transparency, and purity affect me on a deep level. So I was naturally delighted to have an opportunity to see Anonymous 4 at Stanford’sMemorialChurch. These four women have in many ways defined our understanding of medieval music through their 21 a cappella recordings.
The audience lights dim and the sanctuary is lit. The church is absolutely silent in anticipation. The side door opens to enthusiastic applause. Four middle-age ladies file out, elegant in black, accented with shear veils and sequins, their footsteps light.
The audience settles. As with each piece that follows, a pitch is sounded, and the church is immediately filled with unamplified pure song. I’m sitting in the first row and suddenly hit with a disconcerting observation: where’s the sound coming from? Their mouths don’t move. Are they lip syncing? As I’m pondering this, a delightful surprise: a voice emerges from the chord, distinguished by its sublime color rather than volume. The voice rises, then dissolves, returning home to the chord.
The first works are relatively short. The audience is in sync, breathing in cadence. I take time to look at their individual outfits. Although all from the same design, each is unique: ruffled gown, shear gown, pants, vest. Every detail is deliberate and perfect.
With the audience firmly transported to the medieval soundscape, the program takes an unexpected turn: a contemporary work by David Lang. The Wood and the Vine, which will be issued in CD by Anonymous 4 this June, has a medieval motif, but it’s an extended complex work. The development builds in excitement within a relatively narrow dynamic range, with an astounding variety of voice groupings and colors.
The concert proceeds without intermission. Performers are rotated, sometimes as soloists, duos, or trios, allowing the others to take a rest in chairs set in the background. This rotation done in a wonderfully unobtrusive way, moving with the same grace as when then walked on the stage.
They never spoke. A word.
Don Huntley, email@example.com, 4/20/2012