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June 8, 2004


Boston Globe

When Anonymous 4 gave its first concert in the 1980s, the group's four women couldn't have known that medieval chant was about to become the Next Big Thing in the music world. Seventeen years later, the renowned vocal ensemble is calling it quits so its members can pursue other projects, ending a highly successful run that's responsible for teaching music lovers (and critics) a lot of what they know about the music of the Middle Ages.

Sunday's sold-out concert was Anonymous 4's penultimate live performance, and the group -- Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Jacqueline Horner, and Johanna Maria Rose -- seemed intent on leaving the music scene much the way it entered: with a demanding program illustrating the astonishing variety of medieval music. The program was "La bele Marie," songs of praise to the Virgin Mary from 13th-century France, drawn from both sacred and popular genres. As the program note observed, the "cult of devotion" to the Holy Mother sometimes reached a fever pitch, and when it did, the artistic results were fascinating.

Medieval music often calls to mind vast, reverberant cathedrals. So it was a special treat to hear this wonderful program in the intimate acoustics of the Rockport Art Association's Hibbard Gallery. In that space the music took on an immediacy and presence that energized it, and its surprising dissonances stood out in bold relief.

Anonymous 4 is known for the ethereal way its voices blend, and one could hear that blend, and the group's supple phrasing, in chants such as "O maria o felix puerpera" and "Beata viscera." But in the polyphonic works, the distinct timbres of each voice were clearly audible, as in the complex textures of "Pia mater gracie." Amid the dazzling vocal fireworks, individual lines wove in and out of the whole, each with its own color. The ease with which the singers not only negotiated the dense polyphony but infused it with grace and agility was stunning.

Each member also took a solo turn on a chanson, a French song that adapted existing melodies to texts honoring the Virgin. Horner's song, "De la mere au sauveor," was a wonder of unadorned beauty. Genensky's slightly nasal rendering of "De la tres douce marie" contrasted with Hellauer's earthier tone in "Mainte chancon ai fait." Rose fared less well, her voice sounding pinched without her colleagues' support. But overall it was a wonderful demonstration of the union of artistic skill and passion for historical accuracy.

The four women shifted gears for their encore: "Wondrous Love," an early American hymn from their most recent CD, "American Angels." The rousing sounds of this simple folk tune may have been the ones that resonated longest. Judging from the enthusiastic response and the throng that lingered to meet the singers after the concert, they'll be sorely missed.

Posted by acapnews at June 8, 2004 9:41 PM


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