Newberry Consort’s Singing Nuns
11:03 a.m. CDT, May 5, 2014
Choral music from an earlier period and of a far more specialized sort made up the season finale of the Newberry Consort.
Co-director Ellen Hargis and colleagues presented the second in a series of programs devoted to music from the trove of musical manuscripts at the Newberry Library known as the Mexican choirbooks. These priceless volumes include works by Old World and New World Spanish and Mexican composers, written for the use of nuns singing the mass and worship services in the former Convent of the Incarnation in Mexico City.
While the six surviving choirbooks contain known pieces by such familiar Renaissance figures as Tomas Luis de Victoria, a good many works are by obscure 17th century composers such as Juan de Lienas, Fabian Perez Ximeno and Fray Jacinto. All four composers figured in the absorbing concert heard Friday at St. Clement Church in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood.
Researching, editing, transcribing and (in some cases) reconstructing these hymns, motets, antiphons and polychoral pieces for performance required a great deal of industry on the part of Hargis and her assistants. But the musical results, sung by a total of 10 women’s voices in various-sized configurations and accompanied by women playing chamber organ, viola da gamba, vihuela (early Spanish guitar) and bajon (a buzzy-sounding baroque bassoon), were fascinating, opening a window on a forgotten era.
The generous reverberation of St. Clement Church, like that of the chapel at Loyola, challenges the efforts of choral singers to communicate texts clearly. Still, one could follow the Latin words in the program book, and the ethereal effect of pure-toned female voices floating in a large, airy acoustic was atmospheric compensation.
The nuns of the Convento de Nuestra Senora de la Encarnacion (to revert to the cloister’s Spanish name) must have been well-trained musicians to master pieces as challenging as these.
The nicely blended Newberry vocalists did a fine job of balancing spiritual and temporal emotions, most notably in Ximeno’s lively setting of the bellicose psalm “Dixit Dominus.” The four instrumentalists made the most of their accompanimental and solo duties.
It’s good news that the consort plans to release the program, “Celestial Sirens II,” as a commercial audio recording.
Feast of the Pheasant
“…spiritedly played and sung… early music at its committed best.”
Chicago Tribune: Review Feast of the Pheasant
By Alan G. Artner, Special to the Tribune
9:48 AM CST, February 8, 2014Friday night at the Newberry Library the Newberry Consort celebrated one of the most spectacular and outlandish banquets in history.
Almost 460 years to the day, the ensemble presented a 90-minute program of music, projections and narration to commemorate the Feast of the Oath of the Pheasant. This party, given by Philip, Duke of Burgundy, was to urge a crusade against the Ottoman Turks who nine months before had taken the holy city of Constantinople.
The early-music community has for decades presented such commemorations, purporting to recreate aural events associated with coronations, funerals, masses and weddings. Spiritedly played and sung, the evening devoted to The Feast of the Oath of the Pheasant is the Newberry Consort’s modest entry to an ever-growing catalog.
Always such programs have involved varying amounts of research and conjecture. There is more than one written account of Philip’s feast but only a single unhelpful image. So David Douglass, co-director of the Consort, had his musicians read aloud from the most vivid description, by chronicler Olivier de la Marche, and perform 22 short pieces assembled around the three by Guillaume Dufay that many (but not all) scholars think were included.
The visual backdrops, often accompanying translations of vocal texts, were brought together from illuminations and tapestries having no connection to Philip’s party. In consequence, many details differed from what was described orally, though in the main the images complemented the texts to fine effect, amply conveying extravagance.
De la Marche’s account cites at least 28 musicians, implying several more. Six made up the Newberry Consort, and they narrated and sung sometimes less pleasingly than they played. The primary vocalist was Consort co-director Ellen Hargis, whose authority shone not only in lively pieces but also Dufay’s great “Lamentatio sanctae matris ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae,” the banquet’s conjectured high point
Thinness of texture was the chief disappointment, especially in more militant and festive pieces such as Conrad Paumann’s “Fanfare.” But to hear the ease with which Tom Zajac alternated among nearly a dozen instruments (including bagpipe and hurdy-gurdy) and the vigor with which Rachel Barton Pine attacked the rebec, a Renaissance ancestor of the violin, was to experience early music at its committed best.
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC
“Celestial Sirens” at the Church of the Covenant
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by Nicholas Jones
The overlapping musical talents and resources of Cleveland’s early music community were in full multi-tasking mode at the Church of the Covenant last week — with some help from Chicago and Tennessee.
The occasion was one event in celebration of the church’s magnificent new tracker organ, modeled on north German 17th-century organs. The organ was built by the Tennessee firm of Richards, Fowkes and Company and installed only this January. It replaces a small gallery organ in the back of the church. A stop-action video documenting the organ’s installation is online at YouTube.
The organ is still being adjusted, but from what I heard, it has a lively delicacy that suits both early solo music and the accompaniment of singers. Boston-based organist Frances Fitch played it to great effect.Oberlin’s James Christie will perform a dedicatory recital on Sunday afternoon, May 12, where no doubt the full range of the organ will be revealed.
The singers were the esteemed Newberry Consort, based in Chicago and directed by the excellent early music vocalist and CWRU faculty member Ellen Hargis. In this concert, eight accomplished singers — many of them Clevelanders — took on the roles of nuns from the Renaissance, singing music that would have been heard in convents in Italy and Mexico in the 16th and 17th centuries. (Pictured above: Celestial Sirens as performed in Chicago).
In the first half the group highlighted two big Italian motets for eight voices, performed with organ and viola da gamba accompaniment. The all-woman choir created a full, rich, and unusual sound, several of the mezzos diving deep into the baritone range to support their treble colleagues.
Especially delicious was a trio by the Vicenzan composer Leone Leoni. It was set in the lower register of the women’s voices, which made the most of the liquid metaphor of the Song of Solomon text, “Anima mea liquefacta est” — “my soul melted when my beloved spoke.” Quite a text for a convent!
Interspersed among the vocal numbers throughout the concert were organ solos, which Ms. Fitch played with elegance and variety. Particularly wonderful was a jazzy villancico (a kind of carol) by Gaspar Fernandez, which she registered entirely on a clear high stop. In another interlude, gambist Katherine Shuldiner took the lead in a virtuosic set of variations by Angelo Notari, a Paduan who spent much of his life in England. Oddly, the theme on which this sober and introspective piece was based is a satiric song, “La Monaca,” about a nun who didn’t want to be a nun.
The organ pieces in the first half, several of them by members of the Gabrieli family, were earlier in period and more conservative in style than a number of the vocal compositions, in which the “modern” expressivity of the Baroque was evident.
Especially beautiful among the vocal pieces was “O superbi mundi machine,” a rich meditation on the vanity of the world by the late 17th-century Ursuline nun Maria Xaviera Perucona. The text has that unabashedly metaphoric eclecticism of Marvell and Crashaw: “Our life is like a flower in which death alone reigns; a sighing breath is an ash which fades away like the dew.”
The second half of the concert featured music from a remarkable collection at the Newberry Library at the University of Chicago, the six choirbooks of the Mexico City convent of Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación. From these 17th-century choirbooks, the consort sang four rich motets for eight voices, making it clear that life as a nun did not necessarily mean musical asceticism, whatever other forms of abstinence it did involve.
In the first of these, a Magnificat by one Fabián Peréz Ximeno, the otherwise secure vocal ensemble of the consort did not quite cohere. But in other pieces, the singers showed good rhythmic coordination and admirable accuracy of pitch (tuning to the organ in “temperament-modified meantone” must not have been easy).
The Church of the Covenant may have to make some adjustments in how to use the reconfigured space around the organ. The narrow gallery in which the singers were spread out does not allow for as much visual contact amongst them as would be found on a larger stage, though the Newberry singers coped well.
More seriously, the singers stand some four or five feet below the floor on which the organ is built. Thus, they are significantly lower than the organist, who had to turn around and look down to catch the beginnings and ends of phrases, with some inevitable lapses in ensemble at the cadences. There seems to be no mirror or video camera installed as yet to help with visual cueing. These issues will no doubt get worked out before long.
The audience, on a snowy night in midweek, was small but appreciative. At the end, after warm applause, the singers generously gave an encore performance of the first choral piece of the evening, an expressive “Cantabant sancti” by Giovanni Battista Cesena.
Nicholas Jones is Professor of English at Oberlin and a keen amateur musician.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com March 25, 2013
‘Cantigas’ Bloom Like Roses at Boston Festival
The Newberry Consort (courtesy BEMF)
By Ken Keaton
There are few places on earth where an audience can enjoy a purely magical performance of Medieval song in a glorious hall. The Boston Early Music Festival is on that short list. The music: Cantigas de Santa Maria, by Alfonso X. The performers: the Newberry Consort with the vocal ensemble Exsultemus. The place: New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall.
The Cantigas de Santa Maria consists of 420 poems set to music, attributed to Alfonso X, King of Castile, Leon, and Galicia during the 13th century. Alfonso was known as El Sabio, “The Wise,” and was not only a great political leader but also one of the finest scholars of his age, learned in all aspects of his world including poetry and music. His treatise on law became one of the guides for our nation’s founders, and he wrote an extensive history of Spain. These works, and the Cantigas, were unique to the age as the first major scholarly works written in the vernacular, rather than Latin.
Whether he directly wrote all of these poems and set them to music, or whether he supervised their assembly, he very likely contributed a major amount. And that actually has little bearing on the fact that these are uncommonly beautiful works, particularly in the hands – and voices – of brilliant scholar/performers such as the Newberry Consort and Exsultemus.
Musician,’Cantigas de Santa Maria’ illumination, E Codex
What survives of the music is just the melody and text – set in an evolving notation in which it is not clear exactly how the rhythms should be interpreted, nor how the words line up with the music. Some scholars feel that the music should be presented without any instrumental accompaniment, but there are ample indications from that instruments were used. Indeed, some of theO illuminations in the manuscript for the Cantigas show instrumentalists playing with singers. That which is played, however, must be reconstructed (would conjured be a better word?), in this case by the scholars and players in the Newberry Consort, experts who have lived with this era’s music for a long time.
All the players doubled instruments, so the accompaniment varied from piece to piece. Ellen Hargis‘ clear, expressive soprano was the leading voice telling each story, with the singers of Exsultemus joining in at recurring choruses.
The language is medieval Portuguese; the performance was enhanced by projecting the English translations of the text, each –against a background of art of that time, whether illustrating the stories of each song, or perhaps showing musicians at work. That was frankly a touch of genius. Most of the settings are strophic, and many narrations were quite extensive. This way the audience could be fully involved and follow the nuances of the performers.
The performers chose sixteen of the Cantigas (all of which celebrate Mary, Mother of Jesus). Two were performed purely instrumentally. Others told mystical stories, like the saint who listened for 300 years to a bird song after he asked Mary to show him what the bliss of heaven would be like. Some were more earthy, like the tale of a pregnant abbess who was saved when Mary took her child far away, so there was no evidence that she had become pregnant. We also heard the tale of the visit of the three kings at Jesus’ birth, and that of his ascent into heaven.
Musicians, ‘Cantigas de Santa Maria’ illumination, E Codex
But the final Cantiga, “Rosa das Rosas,” the most ethereally beautiful of all, was again in praise of the Virgin Mary, “Rose of Roses, Flower of Flowers, Lady of Ladies.” Each verse was sung with rapt devotion. For the final verse, the instrumentalists put down their instruments and joined in one final a cappella stanza. It would not have been surprising if halos of light had encircled each of their heads. It was a truly memorable, inspired ending.
For the record, here is the artist roster:
The Newberry Consort: David Douglass and Ellen Hargis, artistic directors; David Douglass, vielle and rebec; Ellen Hargis, soprano; Matthew Dean, tenor and recorder; Shira Kammen, vielle and harp; Mark Rimple, lute and citole, and Tom Zajac, flute, recorder, bagpipe, hammered dulcimer, and percussion.
Exsultemus: Shannon Kanavin, soprano and artistic director, with Shari Alise Wilson, soprano; Pamela Dellal, mezzo-soprano; Martin Near, counter-tenor, and Michael Barrett, tenor.
Ken Keaton is a professor of music at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of The Mystery of Music, published by Kendall Hunt. As a music critic, he writes for American Record Guide and the Palm Beach Daily News.
King Alfonso X ‘El Sabio’ in his court, as depicted in the ‘Cantigas de Santa María’ E Codex
Early Music America – Fall 2013
A highlight of the (BEMF) festival was a superb multimedia presentation by the Newberry Consort in Jordan Hall on Thursday afternoon drawn from the 13th-century Cantigas de Santa Maria,a manuscript attributed to Spanish ruler and arts patron Alfonso X. This stellar Chicago ensemble, directed by David Douglass (vielle and rebec) and Ellen Hargis (soprano), performed a dozen richly multicultural cantigas, while projecting the brightly colored illustrations that originally accompanied them onto an overhead screen, along with translations of the lyrics. The effect was near total immersion in these stories devoted to Mary, with intricate polyphony improvised by the skilful ensemble, which was assisted by guest artists from the Exsultemus vocal ensemble.