in: Reviews

November 7, 2015

Better Heard Than Read About


The vocal group Tramontana has put together a fascinating, well-crafted gem of a concert featuring two composers from the 16th century more written about than heard: Orlando di Lasso and William Byrd. Presented Friday night at the MIT Chapel, the show can be heard again on Sunday at the Church of the Advent—and having heard the first performance, I recommend seeking out the second.

Twelve relatively brief movements of Lasso’s Prophetiae Sibyllarum, music written to texts ostensibly by the Greek and Roman sibyls constituted the heart of the presentation. Heraclitus first attested these prophetesses of antiquity, whose transmitted prophecies were molded by the generations who came after them. Lasso’s selections have an uncanny resemblance to the Hebrew Scriptures used to show how their prophets predicted the coming of Christ—there’s much talk of virgins and of kings to come. The sibyls had a rather prestigious standing in the church: they are remarked upon in the Dies irae, and Michelangelo places them beside the Biblical prophets in the Sistine Chapel.

Almost all of the above was gleaned from the program and from the comments made from the stage, an index of how attentive the group is to ensuring the audience can understand and connect to this music. The Prophetiae are notable for their declamatory style and adventurous harmonic techniques. The texts are easy to follow, with relatively simple textures, limited textual repetition, and many subtle moments of word-painting. The harmonic twists and turns often give the listener a sense of being gently blown higher, like a leaf on a breeze. To give greater contrast and variety, sacred selections by William Byrd from his Gradualia were sung after two of the Prophetiae. Byrd’s music, while less experimental, was subtly florid and joyful: while texts were often overlapped and obscured, the music had a greater sense of fantasy and were immersed in the spirit and mood of the words, which were mostly Marian in content, and which expressed sentiments from the Psalms and other devotional texts (the Ave Maria text appears twice). The Byrd selections echoed the subjects of the Prophetiae movements that preceded them. In comparison to the Byrd, the Lasso sounded journalistic; compared to the Lasso, the Byrd sounded conventionally religious. Combined, the two works kept the listener’s ear engaged and active.

Tramontana (Matthew Groves photo)

Tramontana (Matthew Groves photo)

Five singers realized the music: Elise Groves, soprano; Hilary Anne Walker, mezzo; Gerrod Pagenkopf, countertenor; Sean Lair, tenor; and James Dargan, baritone. Tramontana does not require its members to sacrifice their individual voice to that of the ensemble: unlike as in some a capella early music concerts, the players do not disappear into a vague antique fog of resonance. Listeners expecting “meditation” music will be disappointed: this is active, thoughtful music making, music that demands attention. Unsurprisingly, the soprano and tenor voices often dominated melodically, Groves’s clarion tone contrasting with the more complex and occasionally reedy (in the best sense of the word) sound produced by Lair. The contrapuntal and harmonic challenges of the work appeared to pose no challenge whatever to the group: sudden metrical changes felt natural and comfortable, and the surprising chords that appeared in the Lasso did so without effort or strain. Much thought went into questions of dynamics and rhythmic emphasis: my eyes were glued to the texts of the works because it became clear that there were important correspondences between the words being sung and the volume and articulation of the singing. The acoustic of the MIT Chapel is resonant but clear; if one were to quibble, one could suggest that at extremes of forte the group threatened to overwhelm the space.

The entire program—the Prophetiae along with seven works by Byrd—lasts just about an hour, just long enough allow the two different musical aesthetics to make a deep impression, but not too long to tire a non-specialist audience. For readers to whom this repertoire is unfamiliar, I cannot think of a better way to be both introduced and immersed.

Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.


  1. “Five singers realized the music”.

    In Milwaukee we “play” or “make” or “perform” music. When the day comes that someone thanks me (or I thank someone) for “realizing music” it will be time to move to Sheboygan.

    Jonathan Brodie

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — November 7, 2015 at 6:15 pm

  2. I’d forgive that “realized” before the headline: “Better Heard Than Read About”. The day the opposite is true and you can publish “Better Read About Than Heard” you’ll have a headline!

    Comment by Raymond — November 8, 2015 at 2:31 pm

  3. @Raymond I think Stockhausen already has that covered. (Or, to pick on a less currently unfashionable name, Morton Feldman after he decided 25 minutes wasn’t long enough.)

    Comment by Graham Clark — November 9, 2015 at 1:49 pm

  4. >> day the opposite is true and you can publish “Better Read About Than Heard” you’ll have a headline

    I not infrequently find this to be the case, actually, assuming good analytical and historical notes.

    Comment by David Moran — November 9, 2015 at 2:29 pm

  5. I think the term “realized” is often used when notation or performance directions are more or less sketchy or instrumentation is unspecified. It could apply to anything from a mediæval manuscript to “The Art of the Fugue.”

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 9, 2015 at 7:36 pm

  6. Judging from Mr. Schuth’s thorough and informed review, it is clear that Tramontona “realized” the music. I do not dispute that. Also evident is that they “realized” superbly, with scholarship, discernment and taste. But when it comes time to summarize their achievement with one word, I think that there are more accurate and complete terms than “realize.” Crediting them with the admirable act of “realizing” the music doesn’t give them full credit. Don’t they deserve a descriptor that takes note of what they have done after the initial “realizing”? “Played” or “performed”; these may be unglamorous terms. But they do serve to take into account the complexities of what musicians do. Musicians “realize” and then play with what they have realized.

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — November 10, 2015 at 10:08 am

  7. The editorial staff ever encourages freshness of vocabulary and usage from our writers. To make music real requires that it exist in a sonic world as well as on the page. Hence “realization” constitutes a fitting variant on “perform” or “play.”

    Please suggest more synonyms.

    If we were reporting on wine, I would rail against notes of plain vanilla.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 10, 2015 at 12:58 pm

  8. Greetings Mr. Eiseman,

    Thank you for your provocative response. In fact, I did have a
    viola case full of synonyms for the tired words “play” and “perform”
    in the first draft of my post. My wife, however, an astute editor who has never yet
    led me astray, firmly suggested that I remove them as my post was getting too wordy .
    To maintain domestic harmony, I complied. The only phrase I remember from 4 o’clock this morning is
    ” tickling the ivories”. I’m on my lunch hour now… But when I get home later today, I’ll work on a list for you.

    With thanks for your journal,


    Comment by Jonathsn Brodie — November 10, 2015 at 2:17 pm

  9. As an editor who also reviews, I feel that ‘realize’ — make real, bring into reality — is stronger and connotatively more complex than ‘play’ and ‘perform’. (I will try to weave in ‘ivory-tickling’ soon, though.) The direct flat verbs are often best, are read over quickly; any insights and freshness are going to inhere in the other diction.

    Comment by David Moran — November 10, 2015 at 3:15 pm

  10. Synonym list update: Per Mr.Eiseman’s request, I have been working on a list of fresh-sounding synonyms for “perform’ and “play”. So far anything I come up sounds strained and/or affected.

    After consulting Chaucer, Shakespeare, G.B. Shaw, the O.E.D., reviews in this journal’s archives (and my wife) I do notice that there are times when those “p” words (tired as they are) have been used effectively; even poetically.

    I’ll keep searching. This project is keeping me out of trouble. For this I am grateful.

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — November 12, 2015 at 1:22 pm

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