The Hilliard Ensemble is marking its 40th anniversary with a year-long celebration before singing a final cadence in December, 2014. ​

"We thought it was best to quit while we could still do our job reasonably well," said baritone Gordon Jones, modestly.

"A long goodbye seems unbearable, but a long birthday party seems much better."

One of the group’s farewell stops will be in Winnipeg, Jan. 25 and 26, for the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s New Music Festival. They’ll perform works by Arvo Pärt, Gavin Bryars,Veljo Tormis, Barry Guy, Phil Kline/Jim Jarmusch and a new work by Toshio Hosokawa.

The Hilliard Ensemble is one of the world’s finest early music vocal ensembles and their exquisite performances and recordings have won them legions of fans.

David James has lent his singular counter-tenor voice to the ensemble since day one. Other members have gradually changed over the years, but since 1998 the other core members have included tenors Rogers Covey-Crump and Steven Harrold, and baritone Jones.

'Sing in tune and listen. Those are the aims. It’s not always easy to do.'- baritone Gordon Jones

Since the beginning, the England-based Hilliards have stood out by performing contemporary music as well as early music, often combining the two.

"The group has always done old and new music, right from the very first concert," said Jones. He explained that there are practical reasons for focusing on the two musical extremes. "The bits in between don’t suit our voices, it’s a matter of exclusion rather than inclusion."

Almost all of the contemporary music they perform was written expressly for them, which means they are largely responsible for an enormous expansion of the repertoire. Over the decades they have worked with composers like Pärt, Giya Kancheli, James MacMillan, Wolfgang Rihm and many more, including several Canadian composers.

The Hilliards have always been deeply committed to contemporary music.

Baritone Gordon Jones of The Hilliard Ensemble

Baritone Gordon Jones has been singing in The Hilliard Ensemble since 1990. (Marco Borggreve)

"I, personally, and I suspect the others in the group, didn’t want to spend their careers performing only music by dead composers," said Jones. "There’s nothing wrong with dead composers, but if you carry on with that attitude, you end up at a dead end, really.

"The repertoire never expands and what is strangest about it is you’re ignoring the time you live in and I think that would be a strange thing to do."

They have collaborated with Estonian composer Pärt more than any other. One might say Pärt simply knows how to write for this ensemble. Jones relates the first encounter of Pärt with the Hilliard Ensemble, a few years before he joined. It was in 1984, when the ensemble was recording some of Pärt’s music for the BBC. To their surprise, Pärt turned up, along with Manfred Eicher of the ECM label.

"They sang one of his pieces and Arvo said, ‘That is the sound I have been hearing in my head all these years, and finally I’ve actually heard it live.’ It’s as though the Hilliards' was the sound that his music needed."

Success with a soaring saxophone

The most unanticipated and unprecedented success surely came with Hilliards' collaboration with the Norwegian jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek. Their first recording, Officium, was wildly successful, reaching a whole new audience, topping pop charts while still appealing to core fans.

The recording was made in the resonant acoustics of an Austrian monastery, and featured Garbarek improvising around the pure sound of the Hilliards singing Renaissance music.

"My feeling is that it was a brand new sound," Jones explained. "Nobody had ever heard that kind of combination of colours before. We’ve been copied since. It really does take a particular combination of colours, both vocal and instrumental, to bring off the balance between them. Also musically, knowing when to make space for the other person is very important, something Jan is terribly good at and something we’ve learned a lot about."

They have gone on to collaborate on two more recordings,Mnemosyne in 1999 and Officium Novum in 2010.

"We have never stopped performing with Jan in all these years," said Jones, and they have a number of concerts scheduled for this 40th anniversary year.

'Sing in tune and listen'

Jones speaks very simply and modestly about the exquisite blending and clear bright sound quality the ensemble creates. "It all comes down to listening," he said.

"It’s like any chamber music-making; you have to be aware of what everybody else is doing, what their significant particular point of the piece of music is and what your position is.

"Sing in tune and listen. Those are the aims. It’s not always easy to do."

As for musical highlights from 40 years of singing together, Jones says it’s the big events that stand out: the first performance with Garbarek and the premiere of music by James MacMillan for the BBC Proms, for example.

"It’s places and people, and very often places, people and music combined," he said.

The Hilliard Ensemble performs two separate programs in the New Music Festival on Jan. 25 and 26.