“Think of our performance tonight as medieval television,” director Amelia LeClair encouraged the audience at the beginning of Cappella Clausura’s Saturday evening concert in Emmanuel church’s Lindsey Chapel. “A Caravan of Songs” promised delightful restorative, filled with tales of love from medieval France, all performed in the casual air of a musical dinner party. Six singers, along with four instrumentalists sat around a table richly laid with fruit and wine goblets. The ensemble delighted with music from female composers and poets, while the gathered company of performers enjoyed the feast and the music. The evening concluded with Abbie Betinis’s setting of poems by the Sufi mystic Hafez, From Behind the Caravan.
The casual trappings masked the immense amount of work that went into preparing Saturday’s repertoire. As Laura Zoll noted in her concert lecture, there are major holes in our knowledge of the songs of troubadours and trouveres, and there are many more extant texts than there are musical settings. The settings that remain (although set in beautifully illuminated manuscripts), are only indicators as to how the original music may have sounded: dynamics, tempo, even instrumentation are all left to the imagination of the modern performer. Cappella Clausura, in collaboration with the collective Carol Lewis (viol) Olav Chris Henriksen (lute), Na’ama Lion (medieval flute), and George Lernis (percussion) developed exciting and colorful renderings of this text.
The collection of chansons in “Caravan of Song” traversed all aspects of medieval love. Comic poetry described a cuckolded husband, or a woman eager for her wedding night; other songs fret over the fate of a knight fighting in the Crusades. Crowded motets paired poems of love and despair in two upper voices while a third “tenor” provided accompaniment. Saturday’s performance proved most moving when the songs turned to musings on the nature of love. In an early example, Un petit davant lou jor, a narrator, dramatically sung by Lisa Hadley, tells how she went wandering through an orchard to find a knight and a lady confessing their love to each other. The ensuing dialog, performed by baritone Will Praepestis and Adriana Repetto, meditated on the bittersweet nature of love that could not be. Later, (S’ieus quier conseil), the knight Guirant (baritone Will Praepestis) complains of his mistress’s angers to his friend Alamada (alto Jennifer Webb), who calmly, but firmly, explains to him that perhaps he should consider not courting other women his mistress’s presence. These tableaus are engrossing in themselves, but Cappella Clausura’s staging of these songs in Lindsey Chapel with the backdrop of the feast table at which tenor Fausto Miro plays the affable drunk, during which alto Jennifer Webb and soprano Lisa Hadley gossip behind his back (soprano Sierra Marcy, with Amelia LeClair shaking their heads knowingly) added to the sense of how these songs were originally enjoyed as light entertainment—in a sense, “medieval television”.
Commissioned and premiered by the Rose Ensemble in 2007, From Behind the Caravan, Abbie Betinis’s scoring for four of Hafetz’s ghazals in the original Farsi is for chorus with spare instrumentation for viola, hand drums, and optional oud. The five-movement work opens and closes with the same invocation—an almost-shouted call (impressively performed by Adriana Repetto) that leads to full choral and orchestral music that is strongly influenced by a Middle-Eastern idiom. While the introduction and conclusion are certainly evocative, the effect become far more interesting in the middle movements, when Betinis explores Hafez’s poetry with a wider-ranging musical palette. The second movement, “Suffer no grief” takes the story of Joseph returning to Canaan as its central idiom. The beautiful piece employs pensive chromaticism in elegant swathes of sound. “Closer to fire”, which follows, is an exciting dance, rhythmically compelled and dexterously composed to illustrate the religious fervor of Sufi’s famous dance tradition. An inconsolable “boatpeople” is steeped in rich jazz harmonies that evoke Poulenc and his tradition, underlain by spare instrumentation that seems to owe much to middle-eastern heritage. Cappella Clausura approached Betinis’s demanding score with due seriousness and commitment. The result was a deeply satisfying sound that filled Lindsey Chapel and earned a well-deserved standing ovation from an enthusiastic audience.
Cappella Clausura continues its season on May 13th and 14th with music from the French Baroque with “Music for Louie Q”.