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Broken Consort’s Trecento Magic Sound World


We were left in the dark in more ways than in just the literal sense during The Broken Consort’s unusual Wednesday evening presentation. The only lights in the fine little chapel of St. Clement’s Eucharistic Shrine were a few baseball-shaped bulbs placed behind a scrim and several others held by the singers themselves. No illumination was shed on the Consort’s 14th-century selections by way of program notes or song texts, never mind translations. Their “Walking with the Giants” was all about sound, the “joy of sound” — ongaku 音楽, Japanese for music, a term I’ve always thought to be such a good way of expressing the word.

The small crowd on hand, made up mostly of vocalists and students (three former students of my own were there), unquestionably found enjoyment plenteous from a sensuously pure brand of vocalizing from The Broken Consort, its instrumentalists producing their fair share of highly select sound. Altogether the outing could be described as a singularly attractive sampling of the Italian trecento bursting with magic; hardly a soul there, I am surmising, recognized but a few words that were sung. But that, as it turns out, seemed not be the point at all; rather, it was early music turned early magic.

“The Broken Consort was founded in 2010 by a group of graduate music students seeking to redefine the standard of conception and presentation of early music, …” — so begins the group’s credo. But the only words I could clearly hear came in the opening piece, a Kyrie from master trecento musician, Italian giant Francesco Landini. Singing from behind the scrim, the silhouetted Emily Lau, Clare McNamara, and Camila Parias, all founding members of TBC, took to chiaroscuro style, their painting of the vowels in these ancient Greek words yielding rainbows of light and shade. Complementary crisp consonants, especially in “Christe,” heightened further such extraordinary sonorousness. How could what the music theoretician calls the perfect fifth be so perfect as it was with these three female voices, that at times, and more often than not, became one single-sounding, savorable instrument? The chapel at the Shrine was near perfect for this event, even with the barely obtrusive noises from busy Boylston Street so close to the Fenway.

The program was a fine mix of solos, duets, and trios by Landini, Jacopo da Bologna, Paolo Ternorista, and anonymous authors. Was it simply for contrast or foil, Peter Walker’s solo bass rendering of Landini’s Partesi con dolore? A quartet also was included as an encore, but what it was and who composed it remains a mystery to me.

In their colorizing accompanying roles, instrumentalists Brian Kay, lute/percussion, and Niccolo Seligmann, vielle, shadowed the voices in muted delicacy, though sometimes I needed to strain to hear their notes. Of the two solely instrumental entries, it was the Salternello (by Anonymous) that bewitched and beguiled. Kay’s finely teased lute calls, Seligmann’s dancy and trancy vielle answers, and Peter Walker’s cadential drum thrums made for another kind of early magic.

The concluding line of the early music ensemble’s credo appears in bold, larger font. Not being able to read in the dark at the chapel, I am just now noticing this and feeling confident about my understanding barely a word, my unfamiliarity with each of the pieces on TBC’s third season opening concert. I am gratified to learn that I was, after all, on the right track.

“Have a wonderful night in our sound world.”–The Musicians of The Broken Consort.

Given the audience — and I am thinking of the students in particular a number of whom were taken aback by tickets being a bit pricey — perhaps some thought can be given to making the event more accessible.

David Patterson, professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.

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