Appearing in its last performance in Kansas City, the American female vocal group Anonymous 4 brought the medieval sounds of the season to life, singing a program of songs, carols, and motets to celebrate Christmas in a way not often part of modern traditions.
The Friends of Chamber Music presented the ladies of Anonymous 4 in their final Kansas City performance at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception this past Sunday afternoon. I feel so very lucky that I was able to bear witness to this performance, not just because of the grace and professionalism with which they sang, but because of the impact they have had on the world of early music in the last nearly thirty years. Fascination with the music of the medieval era continues to grow, and the voices of Anonymous 4 have played a tremendous role in that.
The quartet performed a program of songs, carols, and chants for Christmas, loosely organized by themes—Mary, the Annunciation, and the Nativity. The members are consummate chamber musicians, breathing as one yet able to sing independent and highly intricate parts whose complexities are mind-bending and unique to the time period. The performance also created a satisfying experience for the audience, a blend of intellectual challenges (all the repertoire was sung in Latin or Old English) and meditative listening, since the women never spoke or explained anything about the program, choosing to let the music speak for itself and for the audience to listen and learn all they needed to know about medieval music.
The women of Anonymous 4 all have distinctly different types of voices. Susan Hellauer provided much of the low foundation for the group with smooth and unobtrusive tone colors. Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek’s warm and resonant mezzo was especially powerful during a solo work, “Qui creavit celum.” Ruth Cunningham’s pure, soaring soprano flew over the group, while Marsha Genensky’s voice had an edgy quality that was colorful and compelling. Balance was rarely an issue despite the differences in their voices, and the blend of timbres produced a color that was natural and unaffected, especially when singing in unison.
To say that the performance was transcendent would be an understatement, just as to methodically describe each piece would be redundant. Every song, carol, motet, and plainchant was pure, intelligent, beautiful, and stunningly clear; it would be hard to choose a favorite piece. What I found most striking about my experience of the performance was how different it was from other performances of similar repertoire by other groups. How different these works sounded in the mouths of these four women! They performed with such lack of affectation and showbiz flair that the music took on a new feeling; I found myself experiencing the words, religious and tender expressions about Christmas, more than I ever have at a similar performance. With only their pure voices to focus on, the words gained greater meaning in performance, and so took on a mystical, contemplative nature. It is hard to say what the best or most accurate historical performance of this repertoire is, but Anonymous 4 made it possible to understand the music for what it was written for—as a vehicle for the words of and about God.
The intermission-less performance concluded with a single encore piece, a plainchant “Ite Missa Est,” and I had no control over the tears that pricked my eyes. It wasn’t the beauty of the singing that moved me; rather, the sentiment of Anonymous 4 telling us to “go forth; the Mass has ended” was more than just a cheeky way to end a concert. It felt like a very real farewell from a group that is nearing the end of its touring career, and I can’t think of a more poetic way to say goodbye.
The Friends of Chamber Music
Sunday, December 14, 2014
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
416 W. 12th St., Kansas City, MO
For more information, visit chambermusic.org