The Best a Cappella Group

November 9, 2014

The Night Owls Vassars All

TheHilliardEnsemble1.jpgThey have been likened to a bunch of used-car salesmen and a posse of undertakers and, certainly, the Hilliard Ensemble don’t look much: four middle-aged gents in suits, singing in a row.

But the quartet, long considered one of the best a cappella groups in the business, are stars, and in arenas far removed from the classical world from which they emerged. Routinely clocking up gold discs, they have appeared in the pop charts, been sought-after as a jazz act, and become the performers of choice for avant-garde composers wanting to premiere new vocal works; they have also set the pace, and staked out new musical territory, for generations of young a cappella singers.

Check out the ecstatic comments on their YouTube performance of “Most Holy Mother of God” – a devotional work written expressly for them by Arvo Pärt – and you’ll see what dark reservoirs of emotion they tap into, and how the exceptional purity of their sound has come to mean so much to so many.

Yet now, after 40 triumphant years, they’re about to disband. They’ll recreate their old magic with the Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek in a trio of gigs; serenade audiences in Taunton and Gateshead with percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky, and bid their final adieu at the Wigmore Hall on 20 December. And that will be that.

The Hilliard Ensemble (Photo: Marco Borggreve press image from Debra Boraston)

TheHilliardEnsemble2.jpgPop groups often end up disbanding in acrimony. Classical groups usually last longer, though, more comfortable as they tend to be with changes of personnel. When the Beaux Arts Trio disbanded after 53 years, only their pianist Menachem Pressler remained of the original team; none of the players of the Allegri Quartet in its present form was there in 1953. But classical outfits still have their strains: the violinist who gave the Takacs Quartet its name – Gabor Takacs-Nagy – left it 20 years ago, when the stress of its sudden relocation from Hungary to Colorado put him into an incapacitating depression (he recovered, and is now a successful conductor).

Indeed, no one should be fooled by onstage amity into thinking that the same necessarily holds backstage: the leader of a celebrated American string quartet used to refer provocatively to his colleagues as “staff”, and they weren’t amused. In pursuit of the Hilliards’ backstage dynamics, I catch them after a recording session in a London church, where, perched on stools in the vestry, they rattle off answers to my questions. Are they a democracy? Hoots of laughter ensue: “How do those things work?” “No vote has ever been taken by us.” “It’s the feeling of the meeting which makes the decision.”

So, how did they come to agree on this communal suicide? Given the group’s extraordinary continuity – its newest member, tenor Steven Harrold, joined 25 years ago – it can’t have been an easy decision. They don’t properly answer this, but they point out that the retirement process has had to be a gradual one, as their diary has always been fixed years in advance. Given that their life together has been so intense – 100 concerts a year, 90 per cent of them abroad – will they miss it? At present, they can’t say.

Covey-Crump: “I shall keep singing as long as I’ve got a voice" (Photo: Marco Borggreve press image from Debra Boraston)

Did they have any expectation, back in the beginning, that things would turn out as they have? Not remotely, says countertenor David James, one of the founder-members: “We initially decided it would just be rather fun to sing what we had already been singing in larger groups. But we would do it one-to-a-part without a conductor – and purely for enjoyment. We didn’t sit down, saying seriously ‘let’s start a group’. The way things developed came as a complete shock.”

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