Friday, January 24, 2014

In the Presence of Two Monuments—Hilliard Ensemble in the Temple of Dendur

The Hilliard Ensemble: Gordon Jones, Steven Harrold, Rogers Covey-Crump, and David James
Forty years is a long duration for any musical group. The Hilliard Ensemble has decided to celebrate that milestone by retiring. One civilization that could dwarf this achievement? Ancient Egypt, represented in New York by the Met's Temple of Dendur, where the ensemble bade farewell to Gotham in a Met Museum Presents concert on January 22, radio-simulcast on Q2. 

Not that the concert was a sure thing. The latest polar-vortexed, foot-dumping snowstorm forced the quartet to jump on a last-ditch flight from North Carolina to Philly, and Amtrak it from there, barely making it to NYC. Then, after John Schaefer introduced the group at the Met Museum, and they took their spots to sing, there was no light on their music. After a few minutes and some ad-libbing (including their woeful tale of travel), lights lit, and they began to sing.

The program blended ancient and contemporary songs, creating a chronological diversity for which the ensemble is known. It began with selections from 13th-century France; the phrasing and seven-syllable rhythms felt as much verse as song. Ah, Gentle Jesu! (Sheryngham, ca. 1500) is structured as a conversation between penitent (two upper voices) and a crucified Christ (two lower voices), a responsorial dialogue that evoked a profoundly human feeling.  

By now, many works have been commissioned and written for the quartet. Aus dem Psalm 69 (2007, Katia Tchemberdji) is interwoven with eerie, darkly shaded chords of closely spaced notes. Alexander Raskatov also wrote Praise for the group in 1998. This work in five parts features imagery ranging from lapping, accreting notes; rippling, echoing sounds; and staccato declamations. 

Selections from Armenia included Sharakans by Komitas, with folk music details, and Lord, who made the Spring Run (Vache Sharafyan), with dirge-like lower vocals supporting a dancing upper vocal line. Arvo Pärt has written works for the ensemble, but here, they sang his Most Holy Mother of God, with its exposed solo phrases underscoring the solitude of man, with haunting, distant pleas of "save us."

The program showed the quartet's sensitivity and internal tuning. The repertory emphasizes group balance and harmonics, and a reining in of individualism. On occasion, David James' lovely countertenor takes wing and soars above the ensemble, but always returns to blend in. Tenors Rogers Covey-Crump and Steven Harrold (the "novice" who has been with the group just 15 years)* , plus baritone Gordon Jones, fill out the ensemble, which has also just released Il Cor Tristo (ECM), featuring compositions by Roger Marsh with lyrics from Dante's Inferno.

Hilliard's absence will leave a vacuum. They demonstrated their intrepidness in Heiner Goebbel's fully-staged I went to the house but did not enter (2012 White Light Festival), and their depth in a specialty genre of four-voice compositions at the Temple of Dendur. Two monuments in one vast space.

*Corrected Jan 27

No comments: