Anthology presented “Music of Light and Dark: New Music for Women’s Voices” Sunday afternoon, May 23, at Christ Church in Cambridge. This young and bubbly four-woman vocal ensemble gave “eight world premieres” of music composed especially for them. The same concert also took place two days earlier at the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Boston. Anney Gillotte, Allegra Martin, Vicky Reichert, and Michelle Vachon make up the ensemble. Premiered were the compositions of Peter Bell, Jonathan Breit, Brian John, Stefanie Lubkowski, Nikan Milani, Steven Serpa, and Tony Solitro.
Looking spring-like in their multicolored attire, Anthology’s presentation met somewhere in the middle of a formal and informal format. In an unusual move that could very well be off-putting to some, the ensemble performed each of the new pieces twice. This was to offer the listeners an opportunity “to have a different sonic experience each time” — albeit with the quickly added disclaimer that amused: “if they are too different, that means something is going on up here” (that shouldn’t be).
Anthology’s own introductions to the compositions pointed out how the composers, all but one of whom were present at the concert, had set various phrases of the text to music. Billing themselves as enthusiasts of “classical choral music, hot jazz, Renaissance polyphony, world folk traditions, and music from the razor’s edge of local Boston compositions” — this eclecticism explains the ensemble’s name — the quartet’s focus this Sunday afternoon was on the last of these and included at least one composer from out of town.
Anthology sang with conviction and joy, their four voices almost the only sounds of the afternoon (there was a gardening enthusiast shoveling away in counter rhythms outside the church, but fortunately someone in the audience went outside, successfully calling a hiatus to his work). Theirs is a sound centered on full-throated, vibrato-less brightness with open vowels leading the way, so not all of their words can be understood.
The group appears to luxuriate in beats. The Harvard Dictionary of Music describes this as “A slight, steady pulsation in intensity…Beats can occur between the fundamental of one pitch and a higher harmonic of another as well as between the two fundamentals…” Anthology illustrated this in its second performance of Moonphase by Peter Bell, calling our attention to the harmonics they would be producing in the piece. They moved further away from us, back into the altar for this purpose. Exceeding the effect of the audible production of harmonics was that of beats. At the all-out fortissimo middle section one’s ears could actually feel the air flapping at them. That was unusual and remarkable.
It has to be a big “yes” for this ensemble’s thorough learning of this widely varied music, its courage and outreach to beyond the established, and, even more, its involvement and encouragement of new music from young composers. One feels that given time and experience, more can come from their dedicated voices. For the time being, too little attention was directed toward dynamics and expressivity; all too often their vocal brightness shed its own colors and timbres, which were obviously restricting. But the composers were somewhat guilty themselves. Most all could not resist depending on the high, “intense and exciting” notes in soprano upper registers. And what they could not really resist is what is so tempting for the inexperienced, the urge to paint every word or phrase of the text, forgetting that overall shape, organic development, build, and the like are the stuff of coherent composition. Idealism played its role: peace, the moon’s dark and light side as a mirror of the human condition, to name a few.
Exceptions were Night Owl and Of the Phoenix by Steven Serpa, which captured much of the action as well as the detail of these medieval texts. Po-Chun Wang’s Awakenings sung in Chinese had Anthology-created effects suggestive of a Chinese instrument, possibly the erhu. Wang’s musical vocabulary went expressively beyond the conservative sounds of those of the other composers.