Reaching the Top of the Hill: The Hilliard Ensemble bids Adieu

Last night, I ventured out into the winds of the first Polar Vortex of 2014 on a musical pilgrimage to the Temple of Dendur, the famous, transplanted Roman-Egyptian temple housed in the Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The onus of my journey was to hear the last New York performance of the mellifluous Hilliard Ensemble, now on the waning end of their retirement tour.  Whatever possessed me to wear penny loafers and subsequently tiptoe through the slush remains a mystery.

My personal concert-going activity in the last few months has formed quite a brilliant constellation of choral inspiration for me, beginning in November with a magnificent performance of Britten’s Cantata Misericordium by the choir at Trinity Wall Street, followed immediately by the New York premiere of Nico Muhly‘s My Days at St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue.  In December, I had the incredible privilege to hear the Anonymous 4 who are, in many ways, a female equivalent to the Hilliard Ensemble, this year marking their own farewell tour.  That concert occurred at Corpus Christi Church exactly one week before my ears were blown away by the artistry and musicianship of The Crossing in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium at the Met.

Floating blissfully across this shimmering nebula of great vocal music, it has been a point that Nico made in the program notes for his own work with which I continue to align.  I seem to have misplaced the program, but it went something like, “I have continually been trying to trick singers into singing like the Hilliard Ensemble and players to playing like Fretwork.”  My Days was commissioned by these two groups in homage to the great madrigalist Orlando Gibbons, to whom Muhly credits a great deal of influence on his own early development.  This is a real testament to comparable ensembles like The Tallis ScholarsChanticleer and the King’s Singers — ensembles born out of a love for singing early music that have become unquestionably some of the greatest champions of contemporary music within the mainstream.

Last night’s stunning presentation of the Hilliard’s program Arkhangelos: A Millennium of Music made it all the more bittersweet that this group is disbanding.

Until last night, I had never been to a concert within the impressive Temple of Dendur space.  My thoughts as I made the long journey through the Egyptian collection to my seat did hold moderate concern for the sheer size and booming acoustic of the space, as compared to the Hilliard Ensemble’s four-man compliment.  As it turned out, the performance did not go off without a string of unfortunate hitches.

The pre-concert interview with WNYC’s John Schaefer was riddled with audio issues, making it nearly impossible to hear any of the responses to his thoughtful questions from the ensemble members.  Later, a broadening period of silence pointed by instances of each vocalist glancing patiently toward the ceiling, eventually made it clear that overhead lighting had been overlooked, leaving their musical scores shrouded in darkness.  These problems were quickly resolved, and ultimately allowed for a kind of relaxed and intimate atmosphere to fall over the performance, resulting from the comical banter that emerged from the group at each hang-up.

Thankfully, the apparent ease with which these four, humble gentlemen rendered such a brilliant spectrum of sounds, from the primitive four-part harmonies of 13th century France and quasi-Oriental textures of traditional Armenia to the arresting and complex dissonances of Alexander Raskatov and Katia Tchemberdji left me duly inspired.  The sheer energy and virtuosity of the performance filled the space completely, even at the quietest moments, and roused a long, standing ovation, though the group stoically skipped performing an encore.

My take-away for the evening was the ensemble’s newest recording in a long partnership with ECM Records.  The CD is called Il Cor Tristo and was released this past November.  It features an interesting balance of 16th century Italian settings of poetry by Francesco Petrarca (usually called Petrarch) and a three part cycle, newly composed for the group by Englishman Roger Marsh with texts by Petrarch’s contemporary, Dante Alighieri.  This recording is available in all the usual spots, including iTunes and and is well worth a listen!

All this inspiration is a bit hard to navigate, though an emerging composer could have worse problems to deal with.  Time to take advantage of it and get some new work down on paper.  The past few months have been incredibly satisfying!  Needless to say, I am excited to see what comes next though last night’s concert is going to be hard to beat.

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