“Josquin’s Playlist” from Convivium Musicum debuted at St. Paul’s Church in Brookline Sunday, January 16. Altogether, “Josquin’s Playlist” was truly an intriguing idea. The afternoon included three Ave Marias, the one of the Renaissance master of vocal polyphony, Josquin des Prez (c. 1450-1521), being the centerpiece. To his famous motet, popular since the day he composed it, was added two anonymous parts.
Most interesting it was to hear Josquin’s winning motet, an all-time favorite, given a new spin. What happened was what you might have expected from an anonymous contemporary and turned out to be quite a bit of listening fun, much like following, say, Coltrane’s My Favorite Things. However, the maze of “Anon”’s fast notes, though they filled in the spacious textures of Josquin and were fascinating, overcrowded his music’s appealing openness and reduced its inherent contrast.
On the cover of Convivium Musicum’s program is the well-known portraiture of Josquin, but here Convivium Musicum has the composer sporting IPod earphones. Throughout the concert, Barrett carried on with his own attractive brand of light-heartedness, helping us — the “sub-culture” — with our understanding of this lesser-known era. He described Josquin’s predecessor, Johannes Ockeghem, (c. 1410-1497), as a “difficult creature” and introduced one of the other big names of Renaissance music as “the late great Palestrina.” About hexachords and their usefulness in recognizing whole from the half step, he quipped, “Well, if you didn’t understand what I just said, we can talk afterwards.”
Another version — or take-off — of Josquin’s work, as it were, came from the hand of Ludwig Senfl (c. 1486-c. 1583). This revered composer’s extended polyphonic discourse concluded Convivium Musicum’s foray into Ave Maria. Music Director Michael Barrett, a graduate of Harvard and Indiana Universities, clearly seems to be in touch with what’s happening in Josquin’s world of music-making, the “Golden Age of Polyphony.”
The 18-member ensemble produced plush Latin vowels. Their ooh sounds often reached the physical resonance with one’s own body that makes for glorious encounters. Melodies rang clear. Full awareness of harmonies, one by one, and the chorus’s unyielding focus constantly caused this listener to admire such extraordinary accomplishment.
Many of those little endings that come with Renaissance phrasing puzzled and puzzled again. Over and over, these cadences waned, hardly ever waxed. Vowels did not attain evenness of vocal timbre and too often muted consonants allowed the words to get lost. The sopranos need to be more confident and more responsive. Generally, go-ahead steam, vibrant waves ebbing and flowing with far less reserve or inwardness, seems in order for an expressive communication of text from the entire chorus. This actually did happen, most wonderfully in the last section of Josquin’s tripartite setting of Agnus Dei, which comes from another one of his best known compositions, Missa L’Homme Armé.
The more vertically oriented Kyrie and Gloria from Missa ut re mi fa sol la of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) worked in favor of Convivium Musicum. On the flip side, the more horizontal weaving in Ockeghem’s Salve regina caught Convivium Musicum in a bit of its web, leaving the listener wondering where the music was going. Music Director Barrett said something to the same effect, being that we listeners probably could not figure out when the ending was coming.
I was happy to discover this committed ensemble. Their summoning of serenity offered the listener a break from the noisy world of Patriots football and the rest.
The program will be repeated on Saturday, January 22 at 7:00 pm at Cambridge Friends Meeting House, Cambridge, and on Sunday, January 23 at 5:30 pm at St. Stephen’s Church, Providence, RI.