The Newberry Consort's debut concert 26 years ago was devoted to an exploration of ars subtilior (the subtle art), a school of composition that flourished in France in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. Directors David Douglass and Ellen Hargis and their colleagues returned to that seldom-heard medieval repertory for their first concerts of the season over the weekend. This was the avant-garde music of its day, marked by a rhythmic, polyphonic and chromatic complexity that sounds modern even to our jaded ears. The composers included in the performance I caught Saturday in the Performance Penthouse of the University of Chicago's spectacular new Logan Center for the Arts set melismatic vocal lines over three or more instrumental parts moving more or less independently. Performers of the highest virtuosity are needed to sort through the intricate polyphony. If this makes the music sound overly intellectual, the subject matter – love songs, evocations of bird song and other pastoral scenes – is pure, sensuous delight. The Newberry players were fully inside various rondeaux, virelais and ballades by Jacob de Senleches, Jean Vaillant and others, and the intimate concert room proved an ideal place for them to bring this secular music to life. Hargis sang the pieces with a still and delicate subtlety of expression, qualities mirrored by the equally sensitive instrumentalists – Shira Kammen, Tom Zajac, Mark Rimple and Douglass, playing vielle (medieval fiddle), rebec (bowed lute), harp, recorder, flute, bagpipe and lute. The Newberry season will continue Jan. 25-27 (songs and poems of Robert Burns); and May 3-5 (early music from Poland); 773-669-7335, newberryconsort.org.
If this makes the music sound overly intellectual, the subject matter – love songs, evocations of bird song and other pastoral scenes – is pure, sensuous delight.