Striving to communicate with the divine through prayer and solitude has been a goal for many in one form or another for eons. During the Middle Ages this type of quest was taken to the extreme through a hermetic life in which an individual would sequester him or herself in a cell attached to a church with only a little window to the outside world. This kind of medieval mystic tradition, referred to as anchorism, is the centerpiece of David Ludwig’s The Anchoress, which was given its West Coast premiere by Chamber Music Northwest (July 17) at Kaul Auditorium.
Written in 2018, The Anchoress features the poetry of Katie Ford, in which she channeled a fictional woman from the 14th Century who becomes an anchoress. Ford’s evocative and sometimes dense text was sung superbly by soprano Hyunah Yu and augmented with panache by an unusual ensemble consisting of the Kenari Saxophone Quartet and the WindSync Wind Quintet.
Ludwig blended the combination of voice, text, and instruments into an arresting piece that sounded ancient and modern at the same time. It started with Yu walking slowly to center stage, with the two ensembles following her and singing the word “requiem” in a medieval-chant-like-fashion. The solemnity reinforced the idea that the anchoress was sealing herself in a living tomb, so to speak. Ford and Ludwig pointed out (in an interview in I care if you listen) that women in the Middle Ages didn’t have many opportunities. To become an anchoress was a distinguished alternative.
Ford’s poems told of people who visited the anchoress at the cell’s only window, seeking advice for their lives. If the anchoress replied with something that might have been heretical, it was suggested in Ford’s poetry with brackets and ellipsis. During those moments, the instrumentalists played loudly as if they were authorities who didn’t want the anchoress to be heard.
The saxophones and wind ensemble evoked a Renaissance-like sound that was also jazzy with a lot of the tones wiggling about like the chatter of people. Yu’s crystalline and emotive voice expressed the thoughts of the main character terrifically, executing leaps with pinpoint accuracy and using sprechstimme to great effect.
The fictional anchoress had doubts and sought clarity, but didn’t see herself as an oracle for others. At one point, she told of a dream about leaving her cell and going into the forest where she encountered the voice of God speaking through a “tent of sticks and linden in which burned an amber light.” That evoked the story of Moses and the burning bush in the Old Testament. The anchoress’s thoughts at this point of the story were again redacted with brackets and ellipsis and interrupted with sforzandos from the musicians.
Yet with the music settling down and becoming more soothing, the anchoress persevered and made her own way to God, with Yu and her colleagues concluding the story on a high note and a peaceful resolution. It was fascinating to hear the imagined thoughts and words of someone from so long ago. You could think of such people as influencers in today’s lingo–but without any financial motivation. That’s refreshing.
The first half of the concert began with the Kenari Saxophone Quartet percolating through Mischa Zupko’s lively Quantum Shift. The foursome (Bob Eason, Kyle Baldwin, Corey Dundee, Gabriel Piqué) evoked a fun and carefree spirit right from the get-go with a propulsive drive.
After shifting into a lower gear and slowing down a bit, the one-movement piece again took off but then seemed to dissolve like a fizzy tablet thrown into water. But that didn’t last very long and the music took off again, emitting a constant, peppy swirl that brought everything to a delightful close.
Florence Price’s Piano Quintet in A Minor received an outstanding performance by pianist Stewart Goodyear and the Catalyst Quartet (violinists Karla Donehew Perez and Abi Fayette, violist Paul Laraia, cellist Karlos Rodriguez). The ensemble created superb rhapsodic melodies in the first movement, filled with pristine ornamentation from Goodyear. The second movement was wonderfully serene, and the third elicited ragtag-like themes that finished with a flourish. The fourth brought out big emotions, with Goodyear pouncing all over the keyboard and the strings digging in like crazy.
The audience erupted with sustained, enthusiastic applause and cheers, making a strong case for this quintet to be played more often by chamber music groups.