“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.