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On Center: Fabulous Foursome

by on July 31, 2012 8:00 AM

   Not many musical groups can claim a repertoire that covers a millennium, but Anonymous 4 isn’t a typical vocal quartet.

   Four women got together for a music-reading session on a spring afternoon in 1986. Their goal? To hear what polyphony and medieval chant would sound like when sung by women. Today, Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek circle the globe performing in concert halls, houses of worship, and other venues in North America, Europe, and Asia.

   “If you’re already a fan of Anonymous 4, who released their first album in 1993 and still retain three of their four original singers, you’ll be well aware of their unearthly purity, perfect precision, and inviting style of programming … ,” writes an NPR music critic. “If by chance you haven’t yet made the acquaintance of this fine group — who are as close to superstars as the early music community comes — you are in for a remarkable treat.”

   Renowned for ethereal ensemble singing, Anonymous 4 celebrates its 25th anniversary in a concert of ancient, traditional, and modern chants and hymns October 23 at Penn State’s Pasquerilla Spiritual Center.

   “With the Anonymous 4, there is no accompaniment, no amplification, and no fancy staging,” notes a reviewer for the Denver Post. “It’s just four rarefied voices — pure, simple, and stunning.”

   The eclectic program, scheduled at Pasquerilla to take advantage of the spiritual center’s extraordinary acoustics, features music chosen from the ensemble’s 19 Harmonia Mundi CDs. Selections include eleventh-century plainchant, harmonic English conductus and spicy French motets of the thirteenth century, fifteenth-century Hungarian polyphony, shape-note, and gospel songs of nineteenth-century America, and contemporary works.

   Highlights include Anonymous 4’s first recorded song, “Gaude Virgo Salutata” from An English Ladymass; “Nicholai presulis” from the group’s first public performance, Legends of St. Nicholas; “O quam mirabilis” from The Origin of Fire; “O rubor sanguinis” from 11,000 Virgins; the American classic “Shall We Gather at the River?” from American Angels; John Taverner’s “Lord’s Prayer” from Darkness into Light; and “The Wood and The Vine,” a haunting contemporary take on the medieval ballad written for Anonymous 4 by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang.

   “The ensemble’s curiosity ranges wide, a millennium’s worth of repertoire,” writes a Boston Globe critic. “But no matter the style, the group has a knack for bringing out music’s ritual, comforting in its formality while intriguing in its mystery.”

   Stephen and Patricia Noel sponsor the concert. The presentation is part of the Center for the Performing Arts Classical Music Project. With support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the project provides opportunities to engage students, faculty, and the community with classical-music artists and programs. Learn more about the project and Anonymous 4’s State College engagement activities at

   Tickets for Anonymous 4 and other Center for the Performing Arts 2012-13 presentations are on sale. Visit or phone (814) 863-0255 for tickets.

John Mark Rafacz is the editorial manager of the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State.
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