Reviews / Press


The Newberry Consort is completing its season this weekend by returning to the Newberry Library’s collection of choir books from the Convent of Our Lady of the Incarnation in Mexico City for a program of vespers music by Mexican Baroque composer Juan de Lienas.

To say he is little-known is an understatement. Beyond the Newberry choirbooks, his music is found in only one other Mexican source, and no facts have emerged about his life. Apart from the music — an impressive collection of antiphons, motets and psalm settings for two or more choirs — all we have are some nasty epithets and a caricatured portrait drawing.

But as an ensemble of 10 female voices and four instruments strikingly demonstrated Friday night at St. Clement Catholic Church, the shimmering, occasionally soaring music was enough, especially when so thoughtfully assembled and presented in a visually and acoustically satisfying setting.

Research indicated that women alone performed music at the convent, singing the low parts, transposing them higher or playing them on a viola da gamba or bassoon. On Friday the ensemble did all three, and director Ellen Hargis chose pieces of such diverse character as to provide a fabric alternately pale and colorful, lively and serene.

Frances Conover Fitch played short solo organ pieces — by Jose Ximenez, Francisco Correa de Arauxa and anonymous composers — on both halves of the concert. Hargis dedicated the first part, including five antiphons, to St. Clement, the church’s patron saint. Thereafter came music honoring the Virgin Mary and, finally, drawn from Compline, the last service the community sang before going to bed.

Lienas’ “Magnificat” a 10 was the richest, most extended essay. Here Hargis ran into difficulty, having only music for eight of the voices. She completed the piece by drawing on earlier works and composing in the style of Lienas. Her effort was radiant and moving, sung with the purest tone as well as with an ardor properly scaled to music of the period. Its premiere gave both aesthetic and scholarly pleasure.

The concluding hymn “Te lucis ante terminum” and “Salve Regina,” also Hargis’ restorations, conveyed a sweet tranquillity itself nearly worth the price of admission.

Alan Artner is a freelance critic.

Newberry Consort reveals soaring music from Mexican choir books
Debra Nagy

Classical Music Critic

Lots of concerts are presented under an umbrella title that attempts to both accurately describe the links among the various works performed and offers an appealing concept to the public. But usually the concept is over-broad (“Love and War”) with the music unable to effectively support the dramatic idea.

The Newberry Consort, on the other hand, offered a concept concert here in Hyde Park Saturday night at the Logan Center which was an entertaining story told in instrumental music, solo and ensemble singing, and spoken voice, all enhanced with projected visuals and translations. The concert was not only marvelous but had admirable focus.

It’s no surprise that their performance of “Le Roman de Fauvel” fit together so well. It was drawn from manuscripts compiled in the early 1300s all concerned with a single idea: the tale of Fauvel (as told in a poetic parable by Gervais du Bus) with numerous musical works and color illustrations. All these things together told the story of a horse who represented the worst in man: greed, corruption, envy, cowardice and the like. The character of Fauvel was inspired by a corrupt official in the court of Philip the Fair, King of France.

The concert, more of a stage piece really, was a series of pieces with different moods and in different forms, which set out the parable of Fauvel, beginning with an introduction, describing just who he was and went on to describe his moral decline. The various musical pieces flowed easily from one to the next, often without break. From time to time a narrator read some of Gervais’s poetry.

The music was splendid, with Ellen Hargis serving as the main singer. Her voice had depth and she put marvelous interpretative talents on display. The plaintive quality of her singing was vivid in a ballad about love, and she took a brief turn with spoken voice toward the end of the performance, showing off her nonmusical dramatic skills.

Debra Nagy was engaging singing the role of Lady Fortune. In an early selection in the concert, she and Hargis blended beautifully in a duet featuring some bracing dissonance. Nagy has a vocal sound with a pleasing gentle quality and she took a simple, direct approach to the music.

Joining the Newberry Consort in the performance was The Rookery, an all-male ensemble made up of six singers. Joseph Hubbard sang in the ensemble and also sang the role of Fauvel. He deployed his deep voice to good effect and had just the right touch of humor and silliness.

Another member of The Rookery took on the role of narrator. Matthew Dean regularly read selections of poetry in medieval French with aplomb and was an effective speaker, which is saying a lot when you consider that audience members (with perhaps a few exceptions — after all this is Hyde Park) had to rely entirely on the projected translations. My only quibble here, is that occasionally speakers had music playing while they spoke, which was very effective. But mostly this was not the case and so tended to make the spoken portions contribute a halting quality to the program. Yet the narrations were important to telling the story and Dean did a great job.

The Rookery men added texture to the performance with their singing and they were exuberant in that part of the tale which involved a little riot, creating endearing cacophony.

The instrumentalists were top-notch, led by David Douglass on vielle and rebec, two early bowed string instruments. He played gorgeously and made it seem effortless.

Christa Patton sported several instruments and was ravishing on the harp. Her bagpipes were also great, leaving me wanting to hear more.

Daniel Stillman also performed on multiple instruments, making his biggest splash with his haunting and airy recorder.

Various members of the ensemble took on the sharm, an instrument with long, narrow body with a bell-shape at the bottom. Hundreds of years ago these instruments were used in battle, because of their forceful sound, and the consort members playing them created clear declarative lines that grabbed your attention.

A large screen behind and above the performers added dimension to the performance. Throughout there were projections of medieval drawings, music scores and manuscripts to enhance the performance, with many showing the horse-hooved and human-headed Fauvel. These graphics were paired with easy-to-read translations of the spoken or sung texts, so that you always knew what was going on. It was an excellent use of modern technology to heighten the appreciation of the 14th century and was skillfully created by Shawn Keener.

The Newberry Consort performs throughout Chicago, but has some deep Hyde Park connections. It was founded by Howard Mayer Brown, the late professor of musicology at the University of Chicago for whom the Howard Mayer Brown Early Music Series (part of University of Chicago Preents) is named. Brown was the mentor of David Douglass and Ellen Hargis, the husband and wife team who now run the group. More than one board member lives here in Hyde Park, including James Fackinthal, who kindly provided me with much background information on the concert.

The Newberry Consort returns to Hyde Park in April for their final concert of the 2015-16 season. They have put together an all-female group of singers and instrumentalists to perform vespers music of Juan de Lienas, a Mexican baroque composer. The performance is at Rockefeller Chapel on Apr. 9 at 8 p.m. with a pre-concert lecture at 7 p.m.

M.L. RANTALAClassical Music CriticHyde Park HeraldChicago
Fauvel 4

Chicago Classical Review

The Newberry Consort brought the medieval Le Roman de Fauvel (“The Tale of Fauvel”) to life in a stellar production at the Logan Center for the Arts on Saturday night (Jan 9, 2016.) The evening’s fourteenth-century romp was a showcase of rarified musicianship, meticulous scholarship, and humor running the gamut from genteel to obscene.

Le Roman de Fauvel, something of a morality play, has come down to us in a fourteenth-century manuscript housed at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The title character is a horse, whose name is an acronym of the vices he embodies—flattery, avarice, variety, vanity, envy, and cowardice (lâcheté in French). Fauvel achieves an undefined position of power through the graces of Lady Fortune, and rules over a society of morally bankrupt sycophants. When Fauvel attempts to consolidate his ascendancy through marriage to Lady Fortune, she pawns him off on Lady Vainglory, and those two produce a brood of hapless offspring that disperse across France—a cautionary tale about the union of too many vices.

The occasion for the work’s performance was the medieval January Feast of Fools, essentially a protracted carnivalesque affair where social order is playfully turned on its head. At Saturday’s concert, after the performers marched on stage playing an estampie (a medieval instrumental dance), a male vocal sextet comprised of Rookery Choir members launched the performance with a conductus (a medieval song form) invoking the festival.

The evening’s singing was of the highest order across the board. In their various numbers the Rookery singers had a luminous quality, with assiduous balance, spot-on intonation, and obvious fluency in medieval musical idioms. Bass Joseph Hubbard was particularly effective in his personifications of the buffoonish Fauvel, and narrative poetic readings were delivered in convincing medieval French.

Newberry co-director and soprano Ellen Hargis made numerous solo contributions that were both evocative and thoughtful. Debra Nagy, whose playing on oboes, harp, and percussion highlighted the sophisticated Consort, periodically joined Hargis in vocal duets of moving limpidity.

The entire production was Nagy’s brainchild. She judiciously excerpted the original Fauvel manuscript to create a well-paced and intelligible narrative. She also arranged much of the music, which Hargis and Newberry founding member David Douglass helped adapt for the Consort’s forces. Nagy’s feats are astonishing when one considers the distance between a medieval manuscript sitting in a French library and Saturday’s vital, relevant performance.

Another impressive feature of the production was the visually enhanced translations that accompanied it, curated by Shawn Keener. Frequently such adornments can be distracting or gimmicky, but Keener’s beautiful and highly amusing selection of illuminated manuscripts depicting the donkey-ruler added greatly to the performance and further transported the audience back in time.

Speaking of temporal shifts, a takeaway from Newberry’s Fauvel was that certain kinds of humor transcend time and place. This was most apparent in the ways prominent people were described ingratiating themselves with Fauvel, with endless innuendoes about “stroking” him and giving him a “rub down.” For anyone who missed the point, it was driven home by a double-entendre about prominent people’s willingness to “kiss ass” to get ahead. While such bawdiness might seem juvenile, Newberry’s performance betrayed so much attention to detail and scholarly rigor one could rest assured it was an authentic rendering of fourteenth-century wit.


Two decades ago this month the Newberry Consort was among the first historically informed performing groups in the United States to revive the music of Baroque composer Johann Rosenmuller.

But some artists successful in their own time nonetheless require periodic revival thereafter, and as consort co-director David Douglass said at Friday night’s concert opening the season at Newberry Library, “Rosenmuller is rediscovered every five years.”

The all-Rosenmuller program drew heavily on the group’s 1995 compact disc, presenting five selections from an early dance suite written for students in Leipzig plus four sonatas and four vocal works from his maturity in Venice. The performances, spirited as well as polished, again went far to confirm Douglass’ assertion that Rosenmuller was “one of the greatest Baroque composers you’ve never heard.”

The sonatas for two, three, four and five instruments proved a special pleasure. At their heart is a kind of fugal writing rich in melody. Episodes both dour and lively form a rapidly changing stream of string color marked by many antiphonal effects and dramatic pauses. The fabric achieved particular sumptuousness owing to the sounds of a bass violin, theorbo and the consort’s new Roland Digital Organ, which with unwavering pitch samples an actual German Baroque instrument.

Rosenmuller so liked dramatic pauses that they were already, unusually, present in his early dance music, written for young performers to serenade nobility. The Suite in C Major includes three more dances than the consort presented, and such was the felicity of the others that it would have been nice to hear them. However, the greatest intensity of Rosenmuller’s expression came later, in his Venetian years, and that side of him was better illustrated by sacred vocal music.

Soprano Ellen Hargis’ agility and flawlessly crisp diction made the most of texts in Latin and German. The abrupt shifts of mood in the sonatas were heightened in the Psalm setting “In te, Domine speravi,” included scolding in “Ach, Herr, strasze mich nicht in deinem Zorn” and achieved clear triumph in “Jubilent aethera.”

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St., and 3 p.m. Sunday at Alice Millar Chapel, 1870 Sheridan Road, Evanston; $35-$45; 773-669-7335.

Alan Artner is a freelance critic.

Copyright © 2015, Chicago Tribune

Newberry Consort full of spirit, polish with program of rediscoveries
Musica Celestial CD

John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune
Newberry’s nuns highlight recent classical albums

“Musica Celestial from the Covent of the Encarnacion.” (Newberry Consort): The manuscript source of this attractive program of Renaissance and baroque rarities for women’s voices, organ and other instruments is six valuable choir books preserved at Chicago’s Newberry Library. Written for the singing nuns of the Order of the Immaculate Conception in Mexico City, the pieces suggest the richly diverse musical culture that was enshrined in the convents. Performances under the direction of soprano Ellen Hargis are fully worthy of the material, none more striking than the luminous eight-voice polyphony of Fabian Perez Ximeno’s “Dixit Dominus,” the album’s central work.

You can purchase this CD directly from our website!

Ten new classical albums featuring Chicago talent

In certain medieval manuscripts, music and image combine to evoke powerful religious feelings. Take, for example, the sources for the Cantigas de Santa Maria, where colorful drawings of musicians, saints, and nobles frame music and poetry that tell of miracles performed by the Virgin Mary. Gazing at the manuscript, one can catch a glimpse of the celebratory religious culture the authors were trying to convey froimagem across the centuries.

Friday night at the First Church in Cambridge, the Chicago-based Newberry Consort and Boston’s vocal ensemble Exsultemus presented the sights and sounds of the Cantigas de Santa Maria, in a concert sponsored by the Boston Early Music Festival. English translations of the poems and projected images taken from the manuscript sources illuminated mesmerizing performances of fourteen songs from the Cantigas, one of the richest collections of medieval troubadour song.

Written in Galician-Portuguese, the Cantigas de Santa Maria were assembled at the court of Alfonso the Wise, king of Castile, León, and Galicia from 1252 to 1284. Most of its 427 songs—composed by anonymous poet-musicians and, likely, Alfonso himself—profess sincere religious beliefs about the Virgin Mary. As the cult of Mary was strong on Iberian Peninsula in Alfonso’s time, the Virgin was a constant presence daily life, and the miracles captured in many of the songs were viewed as solutions to everyday problems.

The manuscript sources themselves leave some elements to the imagination. The Cantigas were written as simple verse songs with a single line of melody. Friday’s performance added harmonies, counterpoint, and instrumental color to the texture, additions that served to highlight the dance-like character of the florid melodies and propulsive rhythms. The Newberry Consort’s method for adding richer textures to the music is, however, rooted in the source material. The instrumental ensemble—consisting of vielle, rebec, harp, flute, bagpipe, hammer dulcimer, and citole—was modeled on those depicted in the illustrations projected onto the giant screen placed center stage.

Two instrumental numbers heard Friday evening featured the subtle expressive powers of the consort. In “Deus te salva, groriosa” the musicians shaped the music in a color wheel of effects. The short piece opened with Mark Rimple performing a light, trickling melody on the psaltery, a plucked string instrument that resembles an autoharp. As if to blanket the texture in a silvery sheen, Jesse Lepkoff (flute), David Douglass (vielle), and Shira Kammen (harp) added layers of delicate countermelody and harmony. In “Toller pod’ a Madre de Nostro Sennor,” the instruments shaped the line into a bristly, Spanish-flavored dance. Douglass and Kammen punctuated the music with well-timed syncopations on dual vielles.

Other songs made theatrical use of the instruments. “Non sofre Santa Maria,” a humorous song that tells of the Virgin Mary leading hungry pilgrims to find a missing chop of meat, featured the spiky sonorities of Kammen’s rebec, played by bouncing the wood of the bow on the strings, and the twang of Tom Zajac’s mouth harp. In “Todo-los bees que no Deus,” Zajac’s tambourine added appropriate thunder to match the song’s description of an earthquake.

But the Newberry Consort’s greatest achievement as an ensemble was the smooth control of the phrasing and fine communication with the singers, effects that seemed to lay each song in a feathery bed of accompaniment.

The singing of the lead vocalist of the evening, soprano and Newberry co-director Ellen Hargis, made for fine storytelling. The longest song offered, “A Virgen mui groriosa,” tells of a man, who, enraptured by the beauty of a statue of the Virgin Mary, places a ring around its finger as a promise to serve her for the rest of his life. But he eventually strays and takes a wife, and, to reproach the man, the Virgin Mary visits him in a dream to remind him of his original promise. Hargis, singing with bell-tone clarity and light shakes of her voice, captured to fine effect the nervous energy laden within the song.

Supporting her were five singers of Exsultemus, who together sang with a creamy tone and pristine blend.

Their most affecting singing came in the songs that made up the second half of the program, many of which dealt with episodes of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. “Madre de Deus, ora por nos,” a prayer to the Virgin Mary on the Day of Judgment, unfolded in strands of haunting, free-flowing melody. The song’s wide leaps and winding melismas, dexterously handled by the singers, seemed to recall the music of Hildegard of Bingen.

“Subiu ao ceo o Fillo de Deus” tells of Christ ascending to heaven. Tenor Matthew Dean sang an affecting line, which Douglas and Kammen echoed and embellished with their strings. Throughout, the Newberry Consort and singers rendered the music with soft tones that seemed to echo at a distance, an effect that captured the mystery of the moment.

Also moving were the songs of praise to the Virgin Mary. The singers performed the gently flowing melodies of “Muito deveria” with warm, enveloping blend. The Newberry Consort and Exsultemus closed with an equally soft and delicate rendering of the most famous of the Cantigas, “Rosa das Rosas.”


Boston Classical Review

Sounds of autumn: A 2014 music preview

Classical Music Critic

Hyde Park HeraldThe Newberry Consort, affiliated with the Newberry Library Center for Renaissance Studies, draws on the library’s vast music collection and assembles local and international artists to perform music from the 13th to the 18th centuries. The Consort also serves as an ensemble-in-residence at both the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. It has been a part the Chicago music scene for nearly three decades and is co-directed by violinist David Douglass and soprano Ellen Hargis.

In November they present “¡Música Barocca Mexicana! Music from the Durango Cathedral Archives,” a concert of eighteenth-century New World music, featuring voices, baroque violins, guitar, theorbo, harpsichord and cello. The program includes U.S. premieres of works by Ignacio Jerusalem, Santiago Billoni, Manuel de Sumaya and others. The event takes place on Nov. 8 at 8 p.m. at the Performance Hall at the Logan Center. Information at or 773-702-2787.

Hyde Park HeraldHyde Park Herald

Newberry Consort’s Singing Nuns

11:03 a.m. CDTMay 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.

Rsirensesearching, 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.

Newberry Consort's Singing Nuns

Feast of the Pheasant

“…spiritedly played and sung… early music at its committed best.”

Alan Artner, The Chicago Tribune 2/8/2014

Chicago Tribune: Review Feast of the Pheasant

By Alan G. Artner, Special to the Tribune

9:48 AM CST, February 8, 2014

Friday night at the Newberry Library the Newberry Consort celebrated one of the most spectacular and outlandish banquets in history.Feast of the Pheasant

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

Chicago Tribune: Review Feast of the PheasantChicago Tribune

“Celestial Sirens” at the Church of the Covenant Previews, News & Reviews
promoting classical music in Northeast Ohio

by Nicholas Jones

celestial-sirens-chicagoThe 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 March 25, 2013

“Celestial Sirens” at the Church of the Covenant (March 20)

 ‘Cantigas’ Bloom Like Roses at Boston Festival

The Newberry Consort (courtesy BEMF)

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

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

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

King Alfonso X ‘El Sabio’ in his court, as depicted in the ‘Cantigas de Santa María’ E Codex

Exsultemus (

Exsultemus (

‘Cantigas’ Bloom Like Roses at Boston Festival

Early Music America – Fall 2013

ema-logo-colorA 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.

Early Music America - Fall 2013


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