ModernMedieval Voices warms bleak winter at National Gallery

Mon Dec 11, 2023 at 11:55 am

ModernMedieval Voices performed Sunday at the National Gallery of Art.

The new ensemble ModernMedieval Voices was founded by Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, a former member of Anonymous 4, along the same lines as that celebrated group. 

The trio of women’s voices performed last year’s best Christmas concert, and they presented a similar program of mostly medieval polyphony Sunday afternoon at the National Gallery of Art. This 50-minute concert, heard at the first of two performances, proved just as bewitching.

The venue for the museum’s free concert series, the all-stone West Garden Court, regularly causes acoustic difficulties for other sorts of ensembles. More like a medieval church than a concert hall, it suited the small ensemble of singers perfectly. In monophony and elegantly stark polyphony, the group’s voices floated limpidly, often creating ghostly harmonies with their ringing echoes.

Most of the program was devoted to late medieval polyphony in Latin and Old English, one of the mainstays of Anonymous 4. As in the opening carol, the 13th-century “Angelus ad Virginem,” the group often alternated between singing in exquisite unison and simple polyphonic arrangements. In this first carol, Horner-Kwiatek sang the tune on the even-numbered verses, with the other singers on an ethereal open-fifth drone.

More or less the same process enlivened “Qui creavit caelum,” a tender 15th-century melody combining lullaby syllables with a Latin text. Here drones of a single or double pitch further varied the texture, the intervals so ideally tuned that the room answered back resonantly. Horner-Kwiatek sometimes partnered with one singer or the other, joining with soprano Martha Kluver for “Edi beo thu hevene Queene,” a 14th-century song in Middle English.

High soprano Chloe Holgate sang with Horner-Kwiatek on “Lullay: I saw a swete semly sight,” a carol with a touching lullaby refrain, performed with soft stillness the final time. All three voices blended faultlessly on other medieval pieces, such as the conductus-like “Ecce quod natura” and the sprightlier “Nowel: Owt of your slepe aryse,” with its catchy refrain that ended the concert.

Three solo chants by Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th-century visionary saint, offered the chance to savor each voice individually. Kluver’s rounded tone suited “O virtus sapientiae,” on a mystical text sung with no drone or other accompaniment. Holgate’s more transparent voice soared on the high notes of “Caritas abundat,” complete with inventive vocal ornamentation to realize some unusual neumes in the score. Horner-Kwiatek came last, with the longer “O viridissima virga,” which revealed some of the wear and tear on her voice, though still lovely.

The modern part came in some of Horner-Kwiatek’s own arrangements of more recent carols, such as the traditional English “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” with Holgate’s solo stanza followed by versions for two and three voices. At the heart of the program was her arrangement of Gustav Holst’s “In the Bleak Midwinter,” to the poignant poem by Christina Rossetti, sung radiantly by the duo of Holgate and Kluver.

Unexpectedly, the highlight of the concert was the most recent piece, “Winter Wakeneth” by Andrew Lovett, composed in 2019 for this ensemble. Its pessimistic poem, found in a manuscript in the British Library, is about the bleakness of winter more than Christmas, and Lovett’s bracing harmonic style, more dissonant than the rest of the program, still sounded medieval-adjacent, ending on an open fifth.

This 21st-century work provided context of a sort for the strangest piece on the program, the 14th-century carol “Ivy is Good.” With all three voices on the refrain, the two-part music for the verses often sounded oddly modern. The Christmas symbolism of the ivy, like that of the holly tree, comes from its greenness and fruit-bearing even in the bleak midwinter. As always, this concert demonstrated that music is the best medicine for the winter doldrums.

The National Gallery of Art hosts more free Christmas concerts, by Heritage Signature Chorale, on December 16.

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