Anonymous 4 is one of a handful of peculiar a cappella groups to top the Billboard classical chart in the past decade by making the church palatable for the spiritually bereft masses. Scholarly explorers of medieval chant and early polyphony, the female quartet's repertoire combines ethereal performance with fascinating history lessons on biblical fables, traditional Christian rites, and the heroic miracle workers of ancient times. Their seventh recording, Hildegard von Bingen: 11,000 Virgins, re-creates a liturgical mass for the feast of mythical virgin martyr St. Ursula, using for its framework the mesmeric psalmody of Sister Hildegard — a 12th-century German abbess, artist, poet, and composer whose endurance through the ages testifies to her widely heralded (some say “visionary”) gifts as a musician.
But it's possible that Anonymous 4's decision to memorialize both the vogueish nun and the Christian cult of virginity is not only a musically virtuous move, but an opportunistic one as well. Since the Benedictine Monks' Chant craze stoked the public's premillennial fever four years ago, Hildegard's music has seen a phenomenal renaissance by a vast range of players (Jocelyn Montgomery and David Lynch's new Lux Vivens is especially haunting). Clearly, she's a sure bet for big sales. But what about this St. Ursula? Like most of the saintly legends, her story is intended to be instructional, not realistic, and indeed, the tale of her martyrdom has bloated to biblical hyperbole over countless generations: Picture chaste and comely Ursula, the “noble virgin,” fleeing a forced marriage to a pagan prince by sailing the high seas with 10,999 other virgins until they meet the Huns, who slaughter the lot because the girl will only give it up to God. Then picture the CD booklet photo of Anonymous 4 all soft-focused, unsullied, and shimmery like poster gals for the 700 Club. But perhaps that's an overreaction. After all, what's wrong with selling old-time church values — as long as it sounds good?
— Sam Prestianni
Anonymous 4 performs on Friday, Oct. 23, at 8 p.m. at St. Ignatius Church, 650 Parker (at Fulton), S.F. Tickets are $22-30; call 392-2545.