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October 11 , 2010

Officium Novum - Notes from the tour

The ongoing “Officium Novum” tour by Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble is proving to be highly successful on multiple levels. Almost all concerts have been sold-out, the collective is at a creative peak, the music continues to change and grow, audiences have been attentive and responsive and the press unanimously positive.

This year’s tour included only one date in England, at King’s College Cambridge. The major UK daily newspapers were on hand to file their reports. Some excerpts:

“On Saturday night, I sat mesmerised by the four singers of the Hilliard Ensemble, accompanied by the Norwegian jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek, as they performed in the soaring, vaulted spaces of King's College Chapel in Cambridge. It's hard to think of music more suited to the age of austerity: a soundtrack to snow, heartbreak, devotion and sacrifice. The remarkable combination of human voice and astringent, often skirling saxophone remains as haunting as when the group's debut album unexpectedly sold 1.5 million copies 16 years ago. The five performers used the chapel's acoustic to its utmost limit, processing serenely up and down the aisles so the notes eddied around it. The response was rapturous. (…) This was serious – but astonishingly beautiful – music for serious times.”

- Rowan Pelling, The Telegraph

“The cold wind from Scandinavia that was chilling Cambridge had also blown in the Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek. Standing at the screen of King’s College Chapel as if one of the carved angels with golden trumpets had descended to earth, he blew low soprano phrases that could have been shards of Nordic folk songs. A low murmur rose in response, as if the very stonework were responding, and the four members of the Hilliard Ensemble processed in from the west end (…) At the centre of the concert, a stark performance of Most Holy Mother Of God by Arvo Pärt, its lines repeating with microscopic variation, suddenly opened out into Pérotin’s Alleluia Nativitas, Garbarek’s saxophone leaping and dancing around the singing. And then the space opened up, with Garbarek and two of the singers processing to the altar and the two other singers going to the west door, so that they traded phrases of Hildegard of Bingen’s “O Ignis Spiritus” down the full 290 feet of the nave. That was all distance and space; the encore was all tight precision. Remember Me My Dear is a 16th-century Scottish song whose melancholic cadences would have brought a tear to the eye of John Dowland. Garbarek started as a quiet descant, then played arabesques over the top, bringing out the anguish in the song’s restraint.”

- David Honigmann, Financial Times

“Saxophonist Jan Garbarek's collaboration with the four singers of the Hilliard Ensemble is meant for beautiful spaces. Their current tour began in Hamburg's St Michaelis, and includes France's Nancy Cathedral and New York's St Ignatius Loyola. Each event is a site-specific experience; as the programme says, the "evening is a free improvisation determined by the performing space" (…) Garbarek started alone. Gradually, we became aware of voices in distant corners, a numinous drone that slowly became more focused. Then I realised that baritone Gordon Jones was singing just a few feet from my ear, as the four singers converged in front of the famous oak screen. Their voices made spare, uninflected sonic backdrops to which Garbarek responded with passionate, occasionally bluesy phrases on his curved soprano. His solos rarely develop with the linearity of conventional jazz; rather, they inhabit and explore the austere structures of the compositions. The most striking moments broke the liturgical spell. Arvo Pärt's Most Holy Mother of God had the directness of a hit single, and their playful interpretation of a 12th-century tune by Pérontin added light and shade. As the concert progressed, the fan-vaulted building became another instrument under their control. The closing moments, as they left the chapel ringing with sound, were mesmerising.”

- John L. Walters, The Guardian

“Their third collaborative album, Officium Novum, has been released by ECM, and immediately soared up the classical charts. For the sole British concert on the promotional tour there were six musical participants: the voices of David James, Rogers Covey-Crump, Steven Harrold and Gordon Jones, the soprano saxophone of Garbarek and the magnificent acoustic of King’s chapel. This was brilliantly exploited as Garbarek began the concert playing a keening lament just in front of the chancel screen. Then, the disembodied voices of the Hilliards joined him from the corners of the building, the singers gradually moving to join him on the dais. It was a spine-tingling coup-de-théâtre that set the tone for a mesmeric hour and a half. The backbone of the material was by the Istanbul priest and scholar Komitas Vardapet, who transcribed, collected and set traditional Armenian sacred music. Using Eastern harmonies and simple modes, it is ideal for Garbarek’s inventive commentary, which wove in and out of the voices, linking different vocal sections. Arvo Pärt’s Most Holy Mother of God was dazzlingly sung without saxophone, its stark cries for intercession echoing the simple harmonic language of Komitas, until it drifted into atonality. A stunned audience failed to applaud after it, but a rollicking 12th-century Alleluia prompted a rapturous reaction. Each piece, each experiment with moving voices around in the space of the building, built on the previous one, until the concert ended with the sheer perfection of the Scottish lament Remember Me My Dear gradually receding into silence.”

- Alyn Shipton, The Times