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.
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.