An increasingly important entity in the chamber music world, Britain's Hilliard Ensemble dares to stitch together threads of traditions from medieval, postmodern and post-minimalist sources, while avoiding trivialities.
As heard in the program titled "Ars Sacra: Sacred Music From Five Centuries and Six Countries," at the Irvine Barclay Theatre on Sunday afternoon, its musical identity remains one of both technical refinement and, contextually, only slight irreverence.
Tenors Rogers Covey-Crump and John Potter, countertenor David James and baritone Gordon Jones lifted sublime voices, sans instrumental accompaniment in Irvine. And the repertory didn't so much span the centuries as leap across them.
The ensemble traced its way, invariably, back to the riches of the 15th and 16th centuries--including music of Josquin Desprez, Fonseca and Sheryngham--interspersing music of the late 20th Century with conspicuous roots in the medieval. (The quartet performed a different program at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana on Sunday evening.)
Estonian composer Arvo Part's "Summa" proceeds like an extended, seemingly breathless exposition of the Latin Creed, phrases dovetailing in meditative ripples. American composer Joanne Metcalf's 1994 "Music for the star of the sea" follows a more reductive plan. Fragmented notes and syllables, and airy half-step dissonances, slowly cohere into a complete statement, with fleeting moments of resolution amid the searching. Such is the nature of epiphanies.
Less effective, from the contemporary camp, were Ivan Moody's bland, pop-inflected "Canticum canticorum II" and James MacMillan's ". . . Here in Hiding. . . .," an ambitious but gnarled redressing of a Gregorian plainchant.
Through it all, the quartet maneuvered with a commanding collective voice, enriched by dynamic sensitivity and masterful way with inflection. A more live, reverberant space than the Barclay would have enhanced this church-based music, but the Hilliard had no trouble delivering devotional passion and giving timelessness a good name.