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Chanteuses of Chant

Anonymous 4 continues its success in medieval music, adds a new voice and eyes more modern fare.

May 02, 1999|ELAINE DUTKA | Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer

In 1992, Robina Young, vice president and artistic director of Harmonia Mundi USA, was face to face with age-old prejudices when she proposed signing the 6-year-old female a cappella group Anonymous 4. Throughout the centuries, medieval liturgical music--the quartet's specialty--had been considered an all-male domain, the province of monks and choirboys.

"Arguments against women singing this music are spurious," the executive informed her Paris-based parent company. "What do you expect nuns did in convents? I'm not talking feminism but, rather, historical fact."

The corporate executives eventually lined up behind her--as did the American public. In December 1993, Anonymous 4 appeared on Billboard's year-end list of leading classical artists, and, three months later, its first two releases were nestled in the Top 10 on the classical chart.

Total sales for the group's eight CDs of 12th to 15th century music are approaching 1 million, Young says--and selling 15,000 qualifies a classical record as a hit. Carried away by the group's unexpected success, a 1995 issue of Chamber Music magazine proclaimed it "the hottest vocal quartet since the Beatles."

When Anonymous 4 appears at UCLA's Royce Hall today, however, there will be a new ingredient in the mix. Though Susan Hellauer continues to sing alto, sopranos Marsha Genensky and Johanna Maria Rose will be joined by the Belfast-born Jacqueline Horner, who replaced Ruth Cunningham last summer. Cunningham left to pursue a career in "sound and healing"--using music to promote mental and physical well-being.

"It was very hard to leave," says Cunningham. "I was mourning for a while. Still, our schedule was very grueling and I was getting the call."

Though the group, whose members are in their 30s and 40s, respected her decision, the reality hit hard. Rehearsing four days a week, touring together and singing in what the New York Times termed "supernatural" unison for up to 75 concerts a year had created a marriage of sorts.

"Going through divorces, deaths, personal change together, we were inextricably intertwined," says Genensky, a former folk singer from California. "We wondered if we could go on. Through the audition process, however, we found there was life after that combination, and started to regard this development as an opportunity."

Genensky, Hellauer and Rose put out the word to colleagues worldwide. What they were looking for, they said, was someone whose voice was enough like Cunningham's so there would be minimal revision of their arrangements. They narrowed the field to 10 contenders, selected from 20 demo tapes. "Replacing Ruth was the biggest task we've taken on," Hellauer says.

Each of the candidates was subjected to a three-hour audition--and the three finalists were called back a few times. "Strangely enough, each was incredibly earthy, lived in New York and stood 5 feet tall or under," recalls Rose who, with Genensky, researches language pronunciation and unearths texts to be recited between the songs. "It boiled down to vocal chemistry in the end."

Nonmusical considerations also factored in. "It was a real bonding moment when Susan [Hellauer] and I discovered that 'Ghostbusters' was one of our favorite movies," Horner says. "We share a taste for trashy films."

Being selected as the Anonymous fourth (the group is named after the scholarly designation for a famous unsigned medieval music treatise) continued a lucky streak for the singer. While freelancing in London in 1995, she entered the lottery for a U.S. work visa. After sending off the form, she forgot about it--until an acceptance letter arrived a year later.

"It was no big deal--they give out thousands of those things" Horner says. "You just have to prove you've been educated, have decent work prospects and won't do something awful when you get to America. Still, I had to pinch myself. Living in the States has been a dream of mine ever since I visited as a child."

Horner's first performance with the group was in St. Paul, Minn., in July--a month after being selected. Her sound is said to be slightly "darker" than Cunningham's, whose voice was the "whitest and brightest" of the four. Critics have remarked on greater resonance in the blend, a slightly warmer tone.

David Gofstein of the Phoenix New Times said, "Jacqueline Horner brings just the right touch of sexiness to the group's trademark ethereal sounds." Hellauer says the addition brings the group closer to the European school of early music singers, which emphasizes sonic "color" more than its British counterpart.

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