Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Keep It Simple

March 17, 2010

Susan Hellauer, Marsha Genensky, Jaqueline Horner-Kwiatek and Ruth Cunningham of Anonymous 4
Photo: mine 2010

The Los Angeles Philhramonic’s Baroque music-oriented concert series, “Baroque Variations”, often leans more toward the "variations" than the "Baroque" part of this union. It’s not at all out of the ordinary for Mozart or Beethoven to creep in with the Handel, Vivaldi, and Telemann that one might normally expect on any given performance in the long running series. Yet, while fudging on the more recent end of the “Baroque” era is common, incorporating works that push the beginning edge of the time period is quite rare. But Wednesday was one of those evenings where the “variations” varied all the way into the Middle Ages and the beginning of polyphony. The occasion was a visit from one of the perennial favorites when it comes to early music, Anonymous 4.

I’ll admit that Anonymous 4 is one of those groups that has existed on the outskirts of my full attention for many years. Their reputation for unique and beautiful performances certainly preceded them, but actually seeing them live made me sit up and take notice. They are fairly unique in the musical world and their scholarship and devotion to performing music that turns off many ears accustomed to the conventions of the last 500 years or so is remarkable. The group has had some minor changes in its line-up over the last two decades, and does not perform and record on the same scale as they did nearly a decade ago. They have taken long breaks for side projects over the years, but when they do come back together it generates a lot of excitement. But none of that changes the absolutely unique beauty of what they do.

Wednesday’s program was entitled “A Medieval Ladymass”, an evening designed to accompany perhaps their most famous recording, An English Ladymass of 1993. The 90-minute compilation includes fragments of many different masses devoted to the Virgin Mary, a common figure of devotion in masses of the time period. And while the fragments vary in their source and content, they work together to form a mass in a practice that was common in the Middle Ages. The four vocalists, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Jaqueline Horner-Kwiatek and Ruth Cunningham, rearrange themselves into trios and duos throughout, presenting an extended performance with no break for intermission. The experience of the vocalists in their long history singing with one another is apparent throughout. The beauty they derive from music as technically straightforward as these chants and motets is a wonder. Some in the audience clearly struggled with the lack of nary even a lute on stage, but for those willing to engage the music on its own terms, it was a very good evening.


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