On Wednesday, December 3rd, The Anonymous 4 (minus Susan Hellauer, absent to attend to family matters) delivered a scintillating exploration of American music of Scottish, Irish and English origins at the Kaul Auditorium at Reed College. This Grammy winning, world-beloved vocal ensemble captivated a wildly enthusiastic audience despite missing one of their members. They were assisted by accomplished string players Darol Anger, a Portlander on fiddle and mandolin, and Scott Nygaard on guitar. The performance was one in their 'Long Time Traveling' tour, and was a rare and special opportunity to hear this group live, as they have not been touring regularly since 2003-2004. Although they became famous for their performances of medieval music, at the Kaul Auditorium they delivered up a rich feast of Americana with a focus on its older roots in the British Isles.
They joked about the 'Andrews Sisters' renditions of the songs they would sing without Hellauer, but there was nothing lacking in the performance. They began the night with a shape note tune entitled 'I'm on My Journey Home,' and from the first moment they opened their mouths the audience was enthralled. The shape note music, so called because of its origins in the American South as a method of learning the solfege system with different syllables represented by noteheads of varying shapes, displayed the close, intimate connection between this music and its roots in Celtic vocalization. Their almost unearthly harmonic blend in this a cappella work was a preview of a fantastic night to come.
Throughout the evening in a varying program consisting of shape note, gospel, revival, folk hymns and lyric folk songs, the three who were present (Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky and Jacquline Horner-Kwiatek) displayed a remarkable, virtuosic ability to render to each piece exactly what was required to make it unforgettable, no more, no less. This music was not characterized by fanciness, nor frills, but by its sometimes stark simplicity. The bulk of the music was religious in nature, being of the 'Sunday morning' variety, as Anger put it. The expressivity of tone was coupled with a deft ability to sing in such a way that it brought out first and foremost the heartwrenching pangs of true belief that must have characterized the composers and performers of this music when it was written.
They sang old favorites that have found long life in the bluegrass idiom, such as 'I'll Fly Away,' 'Angel Band,' and 'Sweet By and By,' as well as other, less familiar works. Each singer also presented a solo work throughout the course of the evening. Genensky sang a cappella towards the end of the performance. 'You Fair and Pretty Ladies,' as she rendered it, was nothing short of ecstatic; its sad tale of a young woman spurned was achingly beautiful. A tune that harkened back to the moors of Scotland, one could detect in the DNA of Genensky's delivery the origins of the "high lonesome" sound that is so prized in modern bluegrass.
Anger and Nygaard also gave an excellent performance. They were no mere 'backup musicians,' but engaging and enjoyable in their own right. Anger spoke a bit through the course of the evening, both about his first meeting with Anonymous 4 when they performed together on A Prairie Home Companion, and later in opening the second half with what he called 'Saturday Night' music (in opposition to the Sunday Morning tunes about which he spoke before.)
The second half opened with Anger and Nygaard playing a medley of fiddle tunes, during which at times Anger seemed to be challenging Nygaard to keep up with him in his accompaniment, forming an immensely enjoyable musical repartee that brought the audience to open peals of delighted laughter. Despite their own virtuosic talents they were skilled and sensitive accompanists when called for, and their musicianship only enhanced the overall amazing quality of the performance. When all was said and done, the audience couldn't get enough and all five musicians reprised 'I'll Fly Away' as an encore, with the audience encouraged to clap and sing along.
Friends of Chamber Music brought a rare and wonderful talent to Portland last night, as evinced by the sold-out crowd of awestruck patrons and the brisk CD sales after the event. I can only imagine that most shows by this ensemble are sold out wherever they go, and rightly so. It was a pleasure to hear music so thoroughly, un-self-consciously insistent and executed with such sincerity and skill.