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April 19, 2005

Trio makes pristine harmony seem easy

San Francisco Chronicle (CA):

Singing doesn't get more unnervingly beautiful than the exquisite display mounted in Herbst Theatre on Thursday night by Trio Mediaeval. With its cool, unerringly precise blend of voices, the group made a local debut that has to count among the musical highlights of the year. This superb Norwegian ensemble consists of three Scandinavian sopranos (Anna Maria Friman of Sweden and Norway's Linn Andrea Fuglseth and Torunn Ostrem Ossum) who sing without accompaniment, mixing their clear, vibrato-free tones in a vocal tapestry of extraordinary splendor.

To hear the group's note-perfect counterpoint -- as pristine and inviting as clean, white linens -- is to be astonished at what the human voice is capable of. The name is not inaccurate, but it only hints at the group's range. In addition to the songs and polyphony of the Middle Ages, Trio Mediaeval also cultivates a body of recent music -- most of it commissioned by the group -- that evokes older work by dabbling in chant, religious texts and pure consonances (the combination of old and new can be heard to wondrous effect on the trio's recent ECM recording, "Soir, Dit-Elle"). Thursday's debut, presented by San Francisco Performances before a disappointingly small audience, skipped the Middle Ages entirely, concentrating instead on a mixture of contemporary music and traditional Norwegian folk songs.

From a theatrical standpoint, the event was understated in the extreme. The three singers, performing entirely from memory, took the stage in plain black pantsuits and delivered the music in fastidious deadpan; the only object onstage was a side table with a flowerpot. To start the second half, the singers delivered a short vocalise by Norwegian composer Bjorn Kruse, based on a traditional Lapland chant, from the three sides of the balcony, and Paul Robinson's "Triadic Riddles of Water" called for some light hand-clapping. Otherwise, there was nothing on offer but the sounds of the three voices.

And what sounds they were! The medieval music that lies at the heart of their style is built on the most basic consonant intervals -- octaves, perfect fourths and fifths and so on -- which can be tuned with relative ease. But the members of Trio Mediaeval sing the most dissonant music with astonishing precision and seemingly without effort. In Kruse's setting of Shakespeare's Sonnet No. 8 ("Music to hear, why hear'st thou music sadly") and in three neo-medieval motets by the English-Norwegian composer Andrew Smith, the group pulled off repeated feats of aural illusion, singing complex parallel chords and close-knit dissonances as though they were the easiest intervals in the world. Excerpts from Piers Hellawell's "Hilliard Songbook" found them shaping more angular melodies with utter fluidity.

There was abundant magic in the folk-song arrangements, done by Fuglseth and Tone Krohn; even without knowing the originals or understanding the Norwegian words, the underlying spirit came through clearly. And Peter Erskine's vivacious, rhythmically off-kilter English song about an emotionally confused orchard was an absolute charmer. The only complaint to be made about the program was that it was all over too soon -- just 90 minutes of singing and not so much as an encore. Trio Mediaeval will have to return, and soon.

Posted by acapnews at April 19, 2005 11:42 PM