Tuesday, April 20, 1999

A cappella concert latest to draw Early-Music crowd


Strange town, Ann Arbor. In this legendarily tolerant and liberal burg flourishes a growing cult of listeners hooked on the Western world�s most rigidly conservative music forms.

The name for the genre is Early Music, a term that ties together very different musical styles, from secular ballads to Gregorian Chant, simply because they predate the traditional starting point for most "classical" repertoire: the baroque era of Handel and Bach.

The University Musical Society presented on Sunday night two leading practitioners of pre-Baroque a cappella vocal style in concert at St. Francis of Assisi Church: the all-female quartet Anonymous 4 and the all-male sextet Lionheart in a celebration of the 15th-century Flemish composer and apparent choirmaster Johannes Ockeghem.

The audience for Sunday�s concert ran from the jeans-and-hiking-boots set to senior citizens in suits and dresses, and fairly packed the several hundred seats of St. Francis. What is it about this austere, arcane music that appeals to them? There are three main dimensions.

First, there is its religious aspects. The Latin texts and adherence to Catholic ritual touch something primal and apart form modern spiritual strife: these are old echoes of the European past, the voices of white folks� ancestors more than 500 years ago.

Second, there is the structure. Anonymous 4 and Lionheart do not claim to be stylistic purists (they couldn�t, since nobody really knows exactly how the music sounded then). But their style is to surrender individual vocal tone to the spirit of the piece, isolating in abstract the eerie melodies, harmonies and dynamics of the music itself.

Finally, there is the history. A figure in the transitional era between medieval chant and Renaissance Flemish music, Ockeghem�s polyphonic masses lie close to the foundation of Western harmony as we now know it. Hearing them is like viewing a Giotto painting.

The concert alternated between traditional unison plainsong selections by various composers and Ockeghem�s polyphonic works: the "Missa Mi-Mi." chief among them. The two groups� vocal lines blended in rich chords in harmonies tinged with both medieval austerity and the more flexible dynamics and color of the Renaissance. This was music of peculiar beauty, foreign and familiar at the same time.


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