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January 23, 2006

Hilliard singers excel in a narrow, rarified realm

The Oregonian (OR):

The all-male Hilliard Ensemble has a choral sound that is immediately identifiable: austere, concentrated, planed to a flat finish. The sound is not for everyone, especially for those who prefer a richer, glossier resonance. And, to some extent, reaction to the Hilliard depends on one's response to its individual voices. But collectively, whether in music from 1100 or 2001, the four, and sometimes five or six, voices of the Hilliard Ensemble sound very much themselves. Friends of Chamber Music brought the English group to Reed College on Sunday for a concert that was both superb and remarkable.

Formed in 1974, the internationally acclaimed Hilliard stands out for its minimalist approach to medieval and contemporary music. The singers' range of expression is narrow. Dynamics remain limited and vocal lines bloom and grow subtlely. As a result, the music sounds pure and clear, marked by a sense of line, astonishing intonation and knowledge of harmonic tension that keeps slow-moving music alive. But there's some debate whether the Hilliard's plain sound is always appropriate.

On the one hand, some specialists argue, the group's plain approach makes sense because we have this idea that people living in the Middle Ages were so "other" as to be almost a different species. Their church music reflected an exalted spiritual plane nearly beyond human utterance. This can be challenging for modern audiences because we're still much influenced by 19th-century ideas of emotional expression. I feel, therefore I am.

Others in the debate point out that folks in olden times were people, too, who enjoyed showing off their voices and expressing their deepest emotions. Whatever the argument, the Hilliard's stark sound extends even to its stage deportment. The singers stared expressionless at their music scores, rarely looking at each other or the audience. If they had suddenly broken into barbershop music, jazz or possibly "Danny Boy," we would have fallen out of our chairs.

The group unified Sunday's concert by threading Nicolas Gombert's Renaissance Mass, "Missa Media Vita," throughout the program. Elongated lines ascended in shallow steps to exquisite cadences. The Hilliard has an uncanny ability to hold a final chord in perfect balance until a magical moment of release. The singers also have an uncanny ability to move between ancient and contemporary styles. Ken Ueno's "Shiroi Ishi" ("White Stone"), written in 2001, gently pulsed with sibilants and "sshing" sounds, like white noise.

Two works stood out for me, Perotin's "Viderunt omnes" ("All the ends") and Josquin Desprez's "Tu solus" ("You alone"). Perotin (born around 1160) was an influential French composer who expanded plainsong from two parts to three and four, adding rhythmic complexity. The best way to describe Perotin's "Viderunt omnes" is medieval hip-hop, marked by simple, descending lines and a bass drone. The piece went on and on, but it was a toe-tapper.

Josquin's "Tu solus" offered gorgeous, long-held phrases capped by hushed cadences. The sound grew even more intense as countertenor David James soared above the others, clarifying the intricate harmonic web. In an encore, they let it rip in a traditional Armenian folk song, unleashing vibrato and their wonderful bass singer, Robert Macdonald. We didn't need "Danny Boy" after all.

Posted by acapnews at January 23, 2006 9:37 PM