in: Reviews

August 28, 2013

Meravelha’s Road Deserved More Pilgrims

by

“The Road Most Traveled,” as performed by the ensemble Meravelha on the evening of August 23rd at St. John the Evangelist as part of the Iberica Early Music Festival, alludes to the pilgrimage route Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James, to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The program was imaginatively presented as a pilgrimage divided into six regions, following the Camino Francés, beginning in France but crossing into Spain at Roncesvalles. The singing was primarily in Spanish Latin, while all of the Cantigas de Santa Maria was performed in Gallician-Portugese. Quant ay lo món consirat was performed in Catalan.

Teri Kowiak, vocalist and director of the ensemble, found creative freedom in the ambiguity of performance guidelines in Franconian notation that the precision of modern notation no longer permits. She writes:

The musical notation in the manuscripts looks very different from the sheet music one sees today. The manuscripts show only the poem and the pitches of the melody. The neumes (musical symbols) used give only a vague indication of “longer,” or “shorter.” In interpreting them, we considered word stress, the melodic line, and obvious points of cadence to determine our own rhythms, sometimes coming up with catchy tunes and other times leaning towards a declamatory style that resembles speech. Other groups performing these songs may come up with something completely different!

Although the iconography in these manuscripts shows instruments playing along with singers or singing instrumentalists, little was recorded about what the instruments actually played. In our preparation, our instrumentalists improvised their accompaniment around the singer’s melody based on our knowledge of modal structure. Much of the accompaniment you hear tonight is also improvised, and never quite the same twice.

Instrumentalists included Jaya Lakshminarayanan on harp, Dan Meyers on percussion and bagpipes, Josh Schreiber Shalem on vielle and rebec, and Catherine Stein on recorder. All instrumentalists lent their voices both as soloists and as choristers in various combinations, but those who participated in a strictly vocal capacity were Teri Kowiak, who arranged and directed the ensemble; Elise Groves; Barbara Allen Hill; and Timothy Whipple.

The pilgrimage began in Roncesvalles with Cantiga 103: Quena Virgen ben servirá, Alfonso X El Sabio (1221-1284), with Meyers, Shalem, Lakshminarayanan, Stein, and a vocal duet. Programmed to engage, the arrhythmic dancelike quality with instrumentals was catchy, and eased the audience into the ambience of the recital, although the subtlety of its early instrumentation wanted a more intimate acoustical space than the church could provide.

This same space was perfect though for the following duet in the back of the church, Potestati magni maris (By the power of the great sea…) (Orfeó Català ms 1), performed by Elise Groves and Barbara Hill with beautiful intonation. A stunning blend of open fifths led into an easy, lilting echo of the opening Cantiga, but with fuller power.

In Karoli magni laude (In praise of Charlemagne) from the Codex Aquisgranensis began as a solo piece by Timothy Whipple, accompanied on harp by Lakshminarayanan. Whipple’s operatically trained voice possessed a strong, rich quality with dramatic delivery that was pleasingly suited to this music without being heavy handed. Lakshminarayanan’s accompaniment was fluid, like arpeggiated continuo.

The second region celebrated was Pamplona, opening with Triumphanti cruore proprio (Triumphant in his own blood) (Prosarium Nivernense)—an antiphonal exchange of verse between men and women in strong unison chant, accompanied by some lovely expression in the harp and then joined together for a final cadence of Alleluia on an open fifth.

Quant ay lo món consirat (If I consider the world) (Madrid BN 105), beautifully sung by Catherine Stein and Teri Kowiak, was arranged in a dancelike three, with the soloists taking turns while providing vocal drone underneath, blending with the accompanimental drone of the vielle.

Nájera, the third region, was represented by the Codex Las Huelgas. Eterni numinis Mater (Mother and daughter of the eternal Divinity) introducing the first and only third intervals of the evening, which had a luminous effect over the still perfect-fifth drone in the vielle. This was followed by Catholicorum conicio, an instrumental arrangement bookending the first half .

The second half began with region four, Burgos, continuing with selections from the Codex Las Huelgas. O monialis concio (O assembly of the nuns…). Lakshminarayanan, who sang while accompanying herself on harp, is a stunning soprano who had her first opportunity to shine vocally in this composition. Of all the singers on the program, her dramatic interpretation of the text was the most moving and charismatic, maintaining exquisite intonation while seated. A memorable performance. Christi miseratio was sung in three-part open-fifth harmony by Catherine Stein, Elise Groves, and Barbara Allen Hill. The harmonies stood out against much of the Gregorian unison and antiphonal chanting throughout the evening.

The players offered portions of Alfonso X El Sabio. Cantiga 23: Como Déus fez vinno d’agua (How God made wine from water) to depict the fifth region, Astorgo. The fable about Holy Mary increasing the wine in the barrel (“As God made wine from water before the governor of the feast, so on another occasion His Mother replenished the wine”) was appropriately festive with tambourine, harp and recorder in a challenging arrhythmic dance that was difficult to pin down but was executed clearly with strong ensemble. Cantiga 147: A Madre do que a bestia de Balaam faler fez (The Mother of Him who made Balaam’s donkey speak) is the story of a poor woman who called on Holy Mary after being conned by a shepherd; Mary made the sheep come forward from where the shepherd was hiding and announce, “I am here.” Lakshminarayanan, who gave voice voice to the sheep, also brought out the humor of the story, even in a foreign language.

The arrival at the final destination, Santiago de Compostela, culminated with two arrangements from the Codex Calixtinus notable for their word painting and atmosphere. O adjutur omnium (O helper throughout the ages), featured acappella floating melismas over vocal droning as the text spoke of divine guidance toward the safety of the harbor. The vocal droning of open fifths painted the open water as if one were on a ship gliding toward port; it was ethereal. The finale, Regi perhennis glorie (To the king of everlasting glory), was memorable for its joyful instrumentation, employing every voice and instrument. It was the one piece that made use of an ensemble-friendly set of bagpipes, played by Dan Meyers, also featuring lively solos, delicately expressive moments, and closing with women’s voices brilliant over vielle, recorder, pipes and drum for the grand finale.

As popular a pilgrimage route as it may be in Spain, such a passage in Boston deserved more devotees, preferably some younger ones. The area is rich with young musicians who are studious and creative, with fresh minds, innovative ideas, and curiosity in the pursuit of early-musical manuscripts still cloaked in mystery, allowing interpretative freedom in roaming an archeological playground of medieval performance practice. New generations of scholars and musicians have become enchanted with this music and find one another, forming small ensembles where they can pour heart and imagination into programs constructed with great care. But since the likes of Dame Emma Kirkby first experimented with the material, the age of the audience has advanced along with that of the practitioners.

Janine Wanée holds a bachelor of music from the University of Southern California, a master of music from Boston University, and professional certificates from the Boston University Opera Institute and summer Acting Shakespeare course at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. She is a member of Copley Singers under the direction of Brian Jones.

7 Comments

  1. And yet another BMint review talks about the decline of classical music audiences…

    Quite coincidentally, I was just reading this blog post (http://www.pierre-arnaud-dablemont.com/blog/dont-worry-be-happy-1827#) by pianist Pierre-Arnaud Dablemont in which he discusses that he no longer reads classical music news because it’s mired in discussions of the failure of the music to lure new audiences.

    My smallest audiences are in Boston, so I don’t schedule too many performances in the city. Both fortunately and unfortunately, there are too many musical things going on–including with the schools–, and it’s really hard to get an audience to come to anything that isn’t strongly established. Musicians and presenters need to be smarter about where, how, when, and why they’re doing what they’re doing.

    In any event, I think that we musicians all have to be careful about striking this classical-music-decline drumbeat. It wasn’t true in the full-house concert I played in South Dartmouth this summer, but it might seem the case in the mid-day concert series I run at First Church in Boston, where we’re lucky to get 25 people. This is all to say that it’s all in the eye of the beholder.

    Perhaps BMint should enact an editorial policy to not comment on audience sizes. After all, why in the world is BMint reviewing audience size instead of just the music itself? As a self-promoter, I would never tell a presenter that one of my concerts had only 20 people in attendance. Likewise, as an arts advocate, BMint should keep the focus on the music, not on the numbers.

    I wouldn’t go to YOUR party if you told me no one was coming.

    Comment by Paul Cienniwa — August 29, 2013 at 5:01 pm

  2. Everyone in the biz is concerned with declining audiences, whereas I see audiences as stable but concerts as proliferating too rapidly. There must be twice as many concerts in Boston now as the there were 20 or 30 years ago, and many more of them now them are free. The presenters have the misfortune of chasing an audience that hasn’t also doubled. The solution? Halve the number of concerts and houses would miraculously fill.

    Should BMInt count empty seats? Yes, we should report what we observe.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — August 29, 2013 at 6:20 pm

  3. >> … we musicians all have to be careful about striking this classical-music-decline drumbeat.

    While I concur in the view that reviewers should report fully, there may be something to this approach and advocacy. Certainly, staying positive is an essential part of all life, musical and other.

    >> It wasn’t true in the full-house concert I played in South Dartmouth this summer,

    Now this is very cool to hear for a harpsichordist.

    Comment by David Moran — August 29, 2013 at 11:59 pm

  4. Headline: Publisher of Noted Boston Classical Music Blog Advocates for Fewer Concerts.

    All kidding aside, BMint does do a good job in profiling concerts before they take place–including the one in this review. The onus seems to lie with musicians and presenters.

    Every so often, I’m approached by a fledgling group who would like to give a concert at First Church for no rental fee. In my first year, I was naive enough to let this happen in order to boost interest in the venue, but I quickly realized that, if groups couldn’t make enough in ticket sales to pay the rental fee (or, presumably, their musicians), then it wouldn’t be beneficial to the venue to host the concert. Musicians, especially those just out of school, are all too willing to do things for free with no business plan. They invite their musician colleagues to concerts without considering that their greatest audiences will not be their colleagues or friends.

    If BMint insists on reporting on audience size, then perhaps it should only send its reviewers to concerts that they feel will be well-attended. But, I’m sure, BMint wants to be fair to the entire classical music scene and not make judgement in this manner. If that’s the case, then BMint is an arts advocate, and it shouldn’t be reporting on audience size–especially in a headline, as was the case here.

    Regarding that South Dartmouth concert: when I arrived at the venue, the host boldly proclaimed that few people had come to the previous year’s concert, so they weren’t expecting much of an audience. What a horrible thing to hear before a concert! I assured them that my own publicity machine was in motion. In the end, they ended up turning away audience, and some chose to sit outside of the venue and hear the music through the open windows. (The recital, by the way, was violin and harpsichord.)

    Had I sat back and expected the presenter and venue to do the job, I would probably have had the small audience they suggested. But I did my own work, including emails to the presenter asking how and when they were going to promote the concert, my own press releases, and my own blog post about the concert (http://www.heraldnews.com/blogs/breakfastwithpaul/x1106261020/Domenico-Scarlattis-Portugal). Musicians need to be proactive.

    None of this is about tooting my own horn. It’s to say that musicians should assume nothing, including presuming that Boston needs more musicians. Just as BMint may not be helping by reporting on low audience size, musicians and presenters aren’t helping the situation by not being smart, by not having good business plans, and, perhaps, by wasting their time gracing Boston with good music.

    (Finally, please understand that these comments have no bearing on the performers or performance noted in the review! I wasn’t there to hear it.)

    Comment by Paul Cienniwa — August 30, 2013 at 8:51 am

  5. The line between advocacy and cheerleading is vague. We advocate in general and critique in particular.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — August 30, 2013 at 9:27 am

  6. I attended and thoroughly enjoyed both Iberica concerts.

    The above comments about self-promotion are very important. My first clue about this year’s Iberica came in a small ad in this summer’s SoHIP program. However, when I went to the website there was no information at all in mid-July. I am on the Iberica email list, and did not receive any communication from them until the middle of August. The listings here at BMint were contradictory.

    At a post-concert reception I mentioned the lack of publicity to one of the performers, who agreed, but tactfully did not want to discuss details. With both the old-style Globe Thursday Calendar and the Boston Phoenix classical listings defunct, it’s much harder for small, and small-budget, groups to get the word out.

    I wonder how many people first learned about the festival from BMint’s feature article.

    Comment by perry41 — August 30, 2013 at 11:33 am

  7. Lee Eisenman — I agree:

    however:

    only a full decade after playing to empty houses in eastern europe did i realize the wisdom about performance: namely, that “being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable.”, to quote the one and only David Augsburger!

    thus it only matters WHO cares. not how MANY people care. I’ve grown to prefer smaller audiences for great performances because it means there will be less distractions. The best is rehearsals, with only a few people in the audience!

    Right?

    Comment by Nicholas Wiedman — August 31, 2013 at 11:38 pm

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