Enchanting Voices 

Anonymous chants in the night

Anonymous IV was the name of the late-13th-century theorist who remains one of our best authorities on the era’s performance practice. Anonymous 4 is a group that formed in 1986 to experiment with the sound of medieval chant and polyphony as sung by higher voices. On Tuesday, Dec. 5, as part of the Great Performances at Vanderbilt series, Anonymous 4 came to Langford Auditorium to give life to the theories of Anonymous IV.

It was, indeed, a performance that swept away the dead of centuries to present a program featuring chant, organum, and even a concluding polyphonic motet that must have derived from ars nova styles. The program was a reconstruction of the Christmas story taken from Hungarian liturgical sources dating from the 12th through the 16th centuries. Included were readings from the Hungarian Peasant’s Bible, which contains a rich store of folklore in addition to the canonical texts.

This music, even though it is the foundation of the music of our society, cannot be judged by the same criteria used to evaluate performances of modern European classical music. Music from this era was a tool for devotion and an offering to God. As such, chant is monodic because God is everywhere and at all times the same. As a simple line of melody, chant recreates the simplicity of eternity in much the same way that a painting from the time avoided perspective to portray reality as coming from all points simultaneously. In an era that was still recovering from the near total collapse of civilization, chant was also very much a tool of remembrance; it was important that every bit of knowledge be retained. That chant is once again becoming a tool for devotion is evident in the popularity of Anonymous 4 and other groups like it.

It was fascinating to watch an audience mesmerized for some two hours by the work of these four women. The texts were brought forth with exceptional clarity and unity of sound. The flowery melismas were sung absolutely together. The organum drone had a substance that was a perfect foil to the insubstantiality of the purely chanted numbers. The final polyphonic motet stunned by comparison.

All of this had the crystalline beauty and strange emotion that chant can frequently bring, but some of the elements of the program called for special praise. The fine melismas and unusual precision in going from note to note in “Speciosus forma” had their exact opposite in the absolute quietness of the ethereal “Alliluya: Veni domine.” In lesser hands, the various verses of the lesson “Primo tempore alleviata” might have been a wash, but here each had a different tone and emotion. The singing of “Exulta filia Syon” was marked by wonderfully liquid singing. After the many moments of chant or chant and drone, the full-force polyphonic motet “Nante dei” was a burst of power so grand that the person two seats over, who had been lulled to sleep some time before, awoke with a start. It was decidedly not your normal lessons and carols, but this may be how heaven sounds.

Blowing their own horns

It’s hard to believe that the Tennessee Valley Winds are in their 11th season, but their continued growth as a performing organization was much in evidence at last Sunday afternoon’s “Joy of Christmas” concert. The program, combining music from the British band tradition and seasonal favorites, was very much appreciated by an enthusiastic, albeit sparse, crowd at MTSU’s Wright Music Building. From the very first, it was evident that this was an organization capable of good ensemble playing with a sharp attention to dynamic detail.

The program opener was Zo Elliott’s “The British Eighth March,” done with considerable zest and good playing from all the woodwinds. The two principal pieces on the first half of the program were two cornerstones of the British band repertoire, Vaughan Williams’ Folk Song Suite and Holst’s Second Suite for Band. The general playing in both these selections was much better than average, but it did suffer from a lack of crispness and authority—a problem that continued throughout the afternoon. Attacks were often scattershot, especially at the beginnings of phrases or pieces. The playing by the clarinet section frequently had a vagueness about it, and the trumpet section really needed to sing with a unified voice.

On the positive side, the percussionists were almost of professional caliber. They never overpowered the other sections, but they very much set the dynamics of the ensemble. Special mention must be made of the trombone solo in the opening movement of Holst’s suite. Holst himself was a trombone player before arthritis forced him to turn to teaching, and I think he would have been very pleased with the soloist’s fine legato playing.

Other special mention should be made of the generally fine playing by the tuba choir and the lower reeds. They had their moments of vagueness, but they generally provided a good foundation for the group’s overall sound and contributed some fine playing in their solos. Also on the first part of the program was an arrangement of “Jupiter” from The Planets and a very beautiful rendition of Percy Grainger’s “Colonial Song,” dished up for band. The Grainger featured a splendid saxophone solo, good phrasing and fine dynamic playing by the trumpet section.

The Christmas portion of the afternoon’s program contained two works by Alfred Reed, a couple of Christmas pops favorites by Leroy Anderson, and an audience sing-along on “White Christmas.” The Christmas numbers were somewhat more plagued with problems than the band standards in the first half of the concert. But then, at the very end, the Tennessee Valley Winds gave a performance of Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” that showed just how good they were. While the audience jingled keys, change and anything that made a tintinnabulation, the artists played with precision, accuracy and a sense of fun. Their authority here was an indication of their growth.

Someone else’s birthday

When I saw the Blair School of Music’s Sunday-night offering, entitled “Happy Birthday Again, Beethoven,” I was reminded of all the December children that I have ever known. And then I wondered, when Beethoven was a kid, did he ever really have a birthday party of his own? Did Mrs. Beethoven’s own darling boy ever receive a present that was really for his birthday and not a gift honoring the Christmas season?

If Beethoven was cheated as a kid, the party atmosphere was in evidence at Blair School of Music as Steve Hyman and Fritchie Lawton, two pupils of Marilyn Shields, did two piano arrangements of Beethoven’s fourth and fifth piano concertos and a peculiar two-piano arrangement of Beethoven’s bagatelle “Für Elise.” Both performers were decidedly nonprofessional—Hyman is an anesthesiologist and Lawton a fashion consultant—but the performers and the audience were having great fun, even when the going got rough.

Both Lawton and Hyman had some very good moments: Lawton’s playing in the cadenza to the first movement of the fourth piano concerto and Hyman’s opening attack of the fifth were both well done, but their tenacity was the most fascinating aspect of the performance. At one point in the fifth concerto, when Lawton lost her way in the piano reduction of the orchestral part, Hyman continued with his trill and Lawton came up with some very believable ersatz Beethoven. The janitor who had to sweep up the dropped notes had his job cut out for him—but was there ever a good party that didn’t require a lot of cleanup?

In closing, I point to a few upcoming musical reminders of Christmas present: The Cumberland Chamber Orchestra will bring its “A Classically Jazz Christmas” program to several area locations in the next few days; call 292-7815 for more information. The Nashville Symphony Orchestra and Chorus are doing Handel’s Messiah this Wednesday and Thursday night, Dec. 13 and 14, at the Ryman Auditorium. Many area churches will be doing Christmas programs during the next week; Vine Street Christian Church on Harding Road will be doing Bach and Rutter this coming Sunday afternoon. TicketMaster has tickets to the Tennessee Opera Theatre production of two short Menotti operas, Amahl and the Night Visitors and The Telephone, Dec. 22 and 23 at TPAC. And Beverly Buchanan will be giving the eighth annual Christmas Eve carillon concert beginning 4 p.m. Dec. 24 in the Belmont University Amphitheater.


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