Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Hilliard Ensemble

November 1 was Hilliard Ensemble Day in Tucson. The renowned vocal group came to the University of Arizona, courtesy of UAPresents and performed a wonderful concert, consisting mostly of new music interspersed with a couple of 15th century songs, as well as some traditional Armenian pieces as arranged by the monk Komitas. Most of my experience with the Hilliard Ensemble comes from their work as part of larger groups (such as their wonderful recording of Arvo Pärt's Passio, but the spare textures of the vocal quartet were enchanting. The ensemble also spent some time with UA's choral conducting students in an afternoon session, which I was fortunate to be able to attend.*

The theme of the program was Arkhangelos, a collection of sacred texts with roots in the Greek, Russian, Roman and Anglican church traditions. Perhaps because of the religious subtext, most of the pieces were slow and majestic, but the group obtained considerable variety through different numbers of voices. The concert's opening was …here in hiding… by James MacMillan, a Scottish composer who has composed several sacred works, including a mass commissioned by Westminster Cathedral. The opening alarum of the work was probably the most dissonant chord in the entire program, like a trumpet call announcing a great prophecy. The text was from Aquinas, but MacMillan intermingles the Latin with an English translation by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. The gradual appearance of English created a feeling of gradual enlightenment as the piece progressed. They followed this contemporary work with the oldest piece on the program, an eleventh century chant sung solo by David James, the group's countertenor. From there, they alternated between 15th century material, traditional Armenian chants, and more contemporary works (where the composers were Arvo Pärt; Jonathan Wild, a graduate composer from their Harvard residency in 2001 and Hilliard Summer School composer-in-residence in 2002; and Alexander Raskatov, a Russian composer born in 1953). The entire program, along with complete notes, is available as a PDF at the Hilliard site.

The discussion with the choral conductors brought some interesting topics to light, one of which was tuning (where tenor Steven Harrold took the lead). They universally decried using the piano (a "monster with white teeth") for anything other than to get the initial tuning for a single note because the piano's equal temperament corrupts the ear's best instincts. They recommended that choral conductors start with a single note, than build all of their intervals from there, culminating in a chromatic scale that is a combination of large and small intervals (the distance is different between D and D-sharp than between D-sharp and E, for example). They sing nearly everything in just intonation, except for Machaut and plainchant, which uses a Pythagorean tuning. The different intonation was quite audible during the concert, where some pieces had intervals that would never be heard on a piano. They also noted that when they rehearse with orchestras, tuning is one of the issues that inevitably arises (and generally resolves in their favor — as one would expect, given that just intonation is a more natural sound).

In a program like this, where some of the compositions are by seldom heard contemporary composers, it is sometimes difficult to grasp more than fleeting impressions on a first hearing. The ensemble has worked with Pärt on several pieces, but this new work (written in 2006) is the only piece he has written for the ensemble without other instruments or voices. His use of silence is exquisite, but the piece was also memorable because of the very simple materials from which it was built — a single phrase "Most Holy Mother of God, save us" — repeated over and over, taking on greater urgency as the piece progressed. Raskatov's multi-movement piece, which closed the program, was the most overtly avant-garde in the extended techniques, without being as dissonant as MacMillan's. It alternated several different kinds of vocal textures, incorporating sprechstimme (somewhere between singing and speaking), glissandi, and other techniques to provide texture variation. The entire program was a superb blend of early and contemporary music.

*Full disclosure: my wife and I sponsored the concert courtesy of a small foundation where I serve on the board.

The photograph of the Hilliard Ensemble is by Friedrun Reinhold.


DaveX said...

Thanks for discussing the tuning aspects here-- although I'm not familiar with this ensemble, I always find something of interest in these sorts of "behind-the-scenes" details.

asoio said...

Thanks for your remarkable review! I had a chance to hear Pärt's 'Most Holy Mother of God (save us)' (which doesn't appear on any Hilliard recording) just few months ago and it impressed me much - I remember it very well also because of unexpected ending: the sound of an airplane flying by outside the church gave a special drama to it, and made the Hilliards look up at the (very high) ceiling long after they finished to sing...

Please note that Alexander Raskatov's name is Raskatov, and not Rastakov.

Caleb Deupree said...

Thanks for the comments, and the correction on Raskatov's name, which I have now corrected in the original post.