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In luminous concert, Newberry Consort recalls music of Spanish Jews in Renaissance tumult

In 1492, while Columbus was unveiling a new world far to the west across an uncharted ocean, the Jews were being thrown out of Spain. Those who would not convert to Catholicism were ordered, on pain of death, to leave a land that had been their home for a millennium and a half.

This suddenly banished people, compelled to find new lives around the Mediterranean basin and across Europe, took with them, besides their faith and their learning, a long and rich musical tradition nurtured in Spanish soil. The multifaceted musical legacy of the Sephardim – literally Spanish Jews – was the enchanting theme of the Newberry Consort’s first program of the season, heard Nov. 5 at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership.Ronnie Malley

If the exhilarating fare provided a reminder of the imagination, brilliance and earthy wit that permeates Sephardic music, it also pointed up the seriousness, vitality and mastery that the Newberry Consort consistently brings to music of the Renaissance and Middle Ages.

The wide-ranging program, titled “Sacred Love – Songs of the Sephardim,” was put together by the American-Uruguayan soprano Nell Snaidas, a specialist in Latin American and Spanish Baroque music who also sat in with the Newberry ensemble.

Snaidas’ selection of romance-ballads, endechas (laments), piyyutim (lyrical embellishments of prayers) and koplas (strophic festival songs) were played on period instruments and sung in Ladino, the traditional Castillian language of the Sephardic Jews. Rather than present this music as an illustrated lecture, Snaidas provided an illuminating essay in the program book and each vocal selection was accompanied by projected translations. Which meant there were plenty of occasions for laughter.

In one ageless comic vocal duet between a wise mother and her enamored daughter, Newberry artistic director and soprano Ellen Hargis cautioned Snaidas (as the youthful lass) about the dubious intentions of young swains. A clever bit of semi-staging led Hargis back to her spot in the ensemble, on the opposite side of the stage, pausing every few feet to turn and wag a finger at her dreamy “daughter.”

Song took a prominent role in a program that began with a portrait of Renaissance Spain as “the land of three faiths” – Christian, Muslim and Jewish. The musical fare, both vocal and instrumental, then focused by turns on the Spaniards, the Moors, songs of the Sephardim and El festival de las luces – Hanukkah.

Even amid a musical atmosphere of polished ensemble and the kind of thorough preparation that allows the whole effect to sound spontaneous, stars emerged. Tenor Matthew Dean, artist in residence at Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel, brought not only ringing sound but also cantorial fluency and elegance to everything he sang.

Daphna Mor, who leads programs for the education department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, put on a mesmerizing display of virtuosity on recorders and shawm. No less magical were Ronnie Malley’s solo flights on the oud, ancient predecessor of the lute.

Though the program book indicated an intermission, the Spertus performance, the last of three at locations around the city, sailed along start to finish with no break. None needed. I got the clear impression that the packed but very quiet audience would have delighted in whatever these stellar musicians might offer, for as long as they wanted to play.

The Newberry Consort’s 2017-18 season continues with “Forbidden Love: The Passion of Héloïse and Abélard” in performances Feb. 16 at the Newberry Library, Feb. 17 at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts and Feb. 18 at Northwestern University’s Galvin Recital Hall.

The season’s final program, “Dangerous Love: Playing With Fire,” will be presented April 27-29 at the same sequence of venues.

Lawrence B. Johnson

Review: Consort, Josefowicz seize the musical road less traveled

The mass diaspora that resulted from the infamous edict by Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella (remember them?) in 1492 expelling all Spanish Jews who refused to renounce their faith and convert to Catholicism spread the Ladino tradition of the Sephardic Jews throughout the Mediterranean.

These highly evocative songs of the Sephardim later took root in the soil of more hospitable cultures, especially that of the Ottoman Empire, thereby preserving for posterity music that existed only in oral form and would otherwise probably have been lost to history.

It was that rich and colorful body of Sephardic songs, dances, ballads and prayers — mingling the cultures of Jews, Christians and Muslims living in coexistence before the expulsion (later to incorporate Middle Eastern musical influences) — that the Newberry Consort celebrated in the first program of its 31st season, heard Sunday afternoon at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago.

“Sacred Love — Songs of the Sephardim” offered aural rewards of many sorts. The Newberry musicians are masters at making early music feel astonishingly fresh and involving. The nine instrumentalists and singers introduced the audience to compelling little tales of courtship and exile, songs of faith and family, funny ballads and wistful laments. The program painted a vivid portrait of secular and sacred everyday life in medieval Spain and beyond, at once Iberian and Middle Eastern in flavor.

Projections of manuscripts and period artwork accompanied the performance. In music and imagery, the sadness of exile from a land the Sephardim had called home for 1,500 years was never far off.

The concert was led by guest curator and performer Nell Snaidas — a captivating storyteller and crystalline singer in everything she sang — and co-presented by the Newberry Library’s Center for Renaissance Studies and the Spertus Institute. Along with consort directors David Douglass (playing vielle and rebec) and Ellen Hargis (voice and guitar), the worthy instrumentalists and singers included Matthew Dean, Eric Miranda, Lucas Harris, George Lawler, Ronnie Malley, Shira Kammen and Daphna Mor, playing lutes, guitars, recorders, flutes and small drums.

Much of the music’s piquant appeal derived from its catchy rhythms and shifting pulses, often with duple and triple meters combined (as in a traditional Arab-Andalusian poetic song); from its prayerful fervor (the Hebrew liturgical song “Lecha Dodi”); and from the melodic charm of such domestic vignettes as a mother’s sternly lecturing her innocent young daughter about the wicked ways of men.

Everything was executed with a stylish exuberance so infectious that audience members gladly sang and clapped along.

The Newberry Consort season will continue with “The Passion of Abelard and Heloise” in February and a program of early 17th-century Italian vocal-instrumental music in April.

John von Rhein

Early Sephardic music proves timeless in Newberry Consort program

Last year marked the Newberry Consort’s 30th anniversary season. The city’s oldest early music ensemble—and the nation’s second oldest—showed no sign of losing momentum as they embarked on their fourth decade of scholarly music-making this weekend with a series of concerts entitled “Sacred Love: Songs of the Sephardim.” Guest curated by soprano Nell Snaidas, Saturday night’s performance at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center was an engaging examination of 16th-century songs that, as always with Newberry, came across as highly relevant to the present day.

By way of a prelude the concert opened with “Propiñan”from the Cancionero de La Colombina, a Spanish manuscript containing late fifteenth-century music. During this ominous instrumental prologue, the text of the 1492 Edict of Expulsion—which called for the expulsion of the Jews from Spain—was projected on a screen behind the players. The projections were the work of the astute musicologist Shawn Keener, whose compelling mix of supertitles, translations, and illuminated manuscripts have enormously enhanced past Newberry performances.

The rest of the program was organized into sets of songs that explored different aspects of the Sephardic repertoire. The first of these was “The Land of Three Faiths,” referring to the period between the Muslim conquest of 711 and the Jewish expulsion of 1492, when Christian, Muslims, and Jews, coexisted relatively peacefully on the Iberian Peninsula. This resulted a sort of cultural cross-pollination among the three creeds, which was evident in the selected works.

An amusing duet between Snaidas and Newberry co-director soprano Ellen Hargis on the relative merits of good lovers versus bad husbands was subtly choreographed and coyly delivered. Tenor Matthew Dean and baritone Eric Miranda’s “Rodrigo Martinez,” about a handsome but insane young man, was energetic and benefitted from the singers’ unified timbres.

A set entitled “The Spaniards,” ensued, which also evinced the multicultural influences of the first set. The opening lute duet between Lucas Harris and Ronnie Malley was gently affecting, and Miranda’s “Israel, mira tus montes” had an icy stoicism to it. Hargis gave a bardic rendition of “Paseábase el rey moro,” a retelling from a Muslim vantage of the Christian seizure of Granada. In this set and throughout the evening Daphna Mor provided characterful wind solos on recorders and shawm.

The first half closed with the two-item set “The Moors.” Nuba al-Maya B’tayhi convyed a hypnotic quality, and the whole consort gave a languid yet sultry rendition of the traditional “Lamma Bada.”

“Songs of the Sephardim” appropriately constituted the longest set of the evening. The bulk of the songs represented here addressed issues of romance, courtship, and marriage that are as germane to the human experience today as they were 500 years ago. Dean’s contributions were pure-toned and at times had an understated swagger. Snaidas lent a wistful air to “Morena me Ilaman,” and was ecstatic in “Scalerica de oro.”

The evening closed with the set “El Festival de las Luces.” Hargis’ rapid melismatic singing in “Siete hijos tiene Hanna” was poised and fleet, and Dean and Miranda gave an emphatic delivery of Psalm 30. The closing “Hazeremos una merenda/Quita ‘l tas” was vital, rousing, and rhythmically infectious, punctuated with an unhinged drum solo from George Lawler.

Recommended Chicago-area classical concerts (excerpt)

Newberry Consort: Chicago’s flagship early music ensemble begins its 31st anniversary season with “Sacred Love,” music of faith and longing from Renaissance Spain and the Ladino oral tradition of the Sephardic Jews. 8 p.m. Friday, Galvin Recital Hall, Northwestern University, 70 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston; 8 p.m. Saturday, Logan Center for the Arts, University of Chicago, 915 E. 60th St.; and 3 p.m. Sunday, Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, 610 S. Michigan Ave.; www.newberryconsort.org

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John von Rhein

Newberry Consort to perform early Sephardic music at the Logan Center

The Newberry Consort will kick off its 2017-18 season with the first of a three-part series of concerts. The three themes for this season are: “Sacred Love,” “Forbidden Love,” and “Dangerous Love.” The second performance in the “Sacred Love” series will be held on Saturday, Nov. 4 at the Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St. at 8 p.m.

“Sacred Love,” the first installment in the series, will focus on the music of Sephardic Jews in Renaissance Spain. The Newberry Consort is one of the premier groups specializing in early music. The group is co-directed by Ellen Hargis and David Douglass.

In order to put out an authentic and captivating program, the Consort tapped Nell Snaidas as a guest curator for the first concert. Snaidas is an expert in Sephardic music from this time period.

“They had been thinking about doing this kind of a program for quite some time,” Snaidas explained. “She [Hargis] said ‘I know you’re the person to come to for help on this because it’s not something we specialize in.’”

Snaidas drew on her knowledge of the Sephardic music tradition to compile the pieces for the concert. However, arranging music from this unique tradition is sometimes difficult.

“The Christian music from Spain, which was very popular and written down at the time, is easy to find because you go to a library and print out a pdf,” Snaidas said. “The music of the Sephardic Jews was not notated, it was passed down through oral tradition.”

While the oral tradition of Sephardic music makes it difficult to pluck a piece out of a library, it does offer the chance for musicians to improvise and give the music a personal touch.

“I arranged some of it, but these are tunes that are known,” Snaidas said. “I’ve been specializing in this for many years, and a lot of the time nobody gives you a piece of music. The cool thing about that is then you know it forever.”

The music of Sephardic Jews was uniquely shaped by the confluence of different cultures and religions in Spain at the time. Snaidas pointed out that this cross-pollination of cultural and musical themes influenced her research as well, and she discovered some modern implications along the way.

“When you think about Spain in that part of time you have to investigate the culture of the Muslims at the time and the Christians and the Jews. They lived very close together at that time and influenced each other,” she said. “In a way it’s pretty timely, I think, with all of us trying to live together today.”

A few Chicago artists will also be performing with the Consort this season. In addition to Douglass and Hargis, Ronnie Malley will be featured on the oud, and baritone Eric Miranda and tenor Matthew Dean will join the vocal ensemble.

Tickets range from $5 for students with ID to $50 for those opting for preferred seating. General admission tickets are available for $40. Individual tickets and season passes are available on the Consort’s website at www.newberryconsort.org/tickets/.

hpherald@hpherald.com

EVAN HAMIN, Herald Intern

Music of Sephardic Jews comes to Chicago

The Newberry Consort will present the music of the Sephardic Jews in Renaissance Spain at their first concert of the season, taking place Nov. 3 to 5 at Northwestern University in Evanston, the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago and at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership.

NELL SNAIDAS, SOPRANO

Entitled “Sacred Love – Songs of the Sephardim” the program will include traditional songs of the Sephardic Jews at the time when they were exiled from Spain in 1492. The program will be curated by Nell Snaidas, an American-Uruguyan soprano who specializes in Latin American and Spanish Baroque music.

Snaidas has selected a wide range of music for the program, including Romances, ballads of love, loss and adventure, endechas (laments), Piyyutim (lyrical embellishments of prayers), and koplas, (strophic festival songs) – all of which will be sung in Ladino, the traditional Castillian language of the Sephardic Jews.

Ladino is the ancient language spoken by Sephardic Jews and is still spoken in pockets of the world. “It’s like Yiddish in that it’s a blend of two languages, Spanish and Hebrew,” said Ellen Hargis, co-artistic director of the Newberry Consort.

“You don’t always think of Jews as Spanish speaking, but the Spanish Jews, who were living in Spain for centuries spoke this language and retained it in the Diaspora,” Snaidas said.

“We will be singing Sephardic texts in Ladino, Hebrew and Spanish, experiencing it through a lens of 16th century Spain,” Hargis said.

This ancient storytelling will be brought to life through the musical sounds of voices, percussion, bowed strings (shawms), harp, Renaissance guitars and the oud (the Middle Eastern grandfather of the lute).

“You will hear very lively distinctive rhythms that you will immediately recognize as sounding Spanish and then you’ll hear certain melodies that sound Jewish or Moroccan,” Snaidas said. “It’s a beautiful hybrid of these two types of sounds and two genres, Middle Eastern and Spanish Renaissance.” The music was played from the 11th through the early 16th century.

The ensemble’s diversity reflects the nature of the Ladino language, which originated in Spain before the Inquisition and was spoken throughout Greece, the Balkans, Turkey, North Africa and beyond.

The concert will feature several renowned musicians including Snaidas, Hargis, voice and guitar; Daphna Mor, a Renaissance recorder player and singer who is of Sephardic decent; Shira Kammen, voice, harp, vielle (a predecessor of the violin) and violin; Lucas Harris, voice and lute; David Douglass, vielle, violin, viola de gamba; Ronnie Malley, oud, voice and percussion; George Lawler, percussion; Matthew Dean, tenor; and Eric Miranda, bass.

“What we really love about this program is it has huge amount of varieties, everything from laments to an ode to fallen heroes, the psalm of David to Hanukkah songs that celebrate the food and drink and the liveliness of the holiday, Hargis said. It includes a recipe on how to make doughnuts. There are songs of flirtation, a debate between a mother and daughter over the suitability of her daughter’s suitor. From everyday human experience to songs of faith, longing, sadness over having to leave their country after the expulsion. “It’s an amazing broad look at the lives of the people through their music.”

Hargis adds that a lot of the music is really toe tapping, exotic dance music and classical sounding melodies. “It’s just a lot of variety and entertainment in a repertoire audiences don’t get to hear very often in this historical point of view.”

Daphne Moore plays the recorder and sings. She is Israeli and is now a musician in residency at a synagogue in New York. She has pursued a career in early music, medieval and baroque and Jewish liturgical music. “For me, I feel spiritual in this genre as my first language is Hebrew. Ancient Hebrew connects directly to my soul.”

“It’s an interesting combination of musicians with various specialties,” Snaidas said. “Everyone is interested in becoming conversant in each other’s styles. The project is looking at the intersection of all these different cultures.”

Oud player Malley is a Chicago native of Palestinian descent. “Three Abrahamic religions coexisted for a long time. The music that came out of it was growing together,” he said. “I love that you can find the traces of the coexistence through the music theory, but more so the poetry, which is mainly in Ladino. It also provides evidence of Arabic and Turkish words being used in the songs.”

The Jews, Christians and Muslims were all living in relative harmony before the expulsion from Spain, Hargis said. “So they were playing each other’s instruments and borrowing musical traditions and singing in each other’s languages,” Hargis said. “The program reflects that.”

For the first time, one of the concerts will be held at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, located at 610 S. Michigan Ave.

The program will have projected super titles and artwork, not just a translation in the program book.
“People can sit back and relax, watching the music and the text at the same time,” Hargis said.

The program is presented in partnership with the Newberry Library’s Center for Renaissance Studies Mellon Conference on Religious Change.

“Sacred Love – Songs of the Sephardim”
Friday, Nov. 3, 2017 at 8 p.m. at Galvin Recital Hall at Northwestern University in Evanston
Tickets: $40-$50; Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017 at 8 p.m. at Logan Center at the University of Chicago
Tickets: $40-$50; Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017 at 3 p.m. at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago. Tickets: $50-$60. Pre-concert chats start 30 minutes before each performance.

To purchase tickets visit www.newberryconsort.org.

Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Newberry Consort closes season with a tribute to a singular Swedish queen

The Newberry Consort enjoys an honored place in Chicago’s musical landscape, pioneering local early music performance on period instruments.

The Consort is closing its 30th anniversary season this weekend with a typically offbeat program centered on Queen Christina of Sweden–a patroness of the arts who had a remarkable amount of music either inspired by her or dedicated to her.

Friday night’s concert at the Newberry Library’s Ruggles Hall showed the graceful blend of scholarship and superb musical values that have come to characterize the ensemble under married co-directors Ellen Hargis and David Douglass. An informal preconcert talk by the University of Chicago’s Robert Kendrick nicely set Christina’s life in context.

The masculine, pants-wearing Swedish queen was an unconventional individual who was as salty, petulant and demanding as she could be kind, generous and spiritual. Claims were made for the mannish Swedish royal as a lesbian or even a hermaphrodite during her lifetime—rumors that can obviously never be proven—but she was undeniably an eccentric and fascinating character.

Christina (1626-1689) was orphaned at age 5 when her father King Gustavas II Adolphus was killed in battle, and she ascended to the Swedish throne at age 18. Catholicism was illegal in Lutheran Sweden, and when the spiritually determined Christina decided to convert to the Roman church, she abdicated her throne. Christina embarked on a long journey from Stockholm to Rome, where her conversion was treated as a PR bonanza by the Holy See.

Honored as “The World’s Most Celebrated Catholic,” for the rest of her life she lived in Rome in her palazzo where she reigned again as a patroness of the arts. She was feted by musicians and encouraged many in return,  including such composers as Luigi Rossi, Bernardo Pasquini and the young Arcangelo Corelli. Though she never married, Christina enjoyed an intensely passionate yet likely platonic relationship–a la Tchaikovsky and Madame von Meck–with Vatican Cardinal Decio Azzolino, who was sole heir at her death.

The Consort’s evening was organized into four sections, which provided a chronological roadmap of the queen’s history, aided by large projections of paintings and translated lyrics. Author Sara Paretsky delivered characterful readings from letters of Christina and her contemporaries, nicely tracing her very full life. 

Led by violinist Douglass, the piquant, peppery sound of the Consort’s early instruments were on full display, from the lively lead-off item of Baldassare Donato’s Le Verginella to the elegantly pointed dance rhythms of Lully’s Ballet d’Alcidiane and the lovely Opus 1, no. 6 Sonata da chiesa of the youthful Corelli.

Lucas Harris was a double threat, manning the imposing archlute as well as the baroque guitar. On the latter he brought a light sensitive touch to Angelo Michele Bartolotti’s Prelude and Ciaccona. Harpsichordist Christopher Bagan displayed bracing virtuosity in Bernardo Pasquini’s Variations in G minor.

Vocal selections offered some of the most rewarding selections. In Rossi’s Un ferito cavaliero–written upon the death of Christina’s father–Hargis conveyed the varied states of this lament, with Erin Headley’s 15-string lirone providing dark instrumental coloring.

Antonio Cesti dedicated his operatic comedy L’Argia to Christina—a comedy with a cross-dressing heroine inspired by her. In the opera’s Prologue Hargis and countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen had great fun in their duetted passages as Thetis and Cupid, respectively. If the soprano’s intonation wasn’t always immaculate, Hargis handled the coloratura runs with fine agility.

Just two years out of Princeton, Cohen is a most impressive singer with a big career ahead of him. Showing a wide range and ease of production, the young countertenor sang easily with bright tone, fine expression and no trace of falsetto.

Hargis and Cohen also teamed up for Domenico Mazzocchi’s Pentito si rivolge a Dio and excerpts from Marco Marazzoli’s opera, La Vita Humana. In the allegorical style of the latter, the two singers made the most of the echo effects with Hargis as Life and Cohen offstage as Guilt.

Giacomo Carissimi’s Rimante in pace omai has no historic connection to Christina but its inclusion as a final work poignantly reflected the grief-stricken Azzolino at Christina’s death (the Cardinal died 51 days later). Hargis and Cohen conveyed the valedictory sorrow of this tribute to a departed love. Rossi’s elegiac Passacaglia nicely framed the duet, first performed by harpsichord and then reprised by the full ensemble.

Lawrence A. Johnson

Review: A diverse and surprising program was devoted to the obscure music of 15th-century Austrian Oswald von Wolkenstein.

By Kyle MacMillan, Submitted by 

While some unexplored or at least under-explored crannies of Baroque, Romantic or even modern composition can still be found, the music of the Middle Ages remains filled with buried treasure. For a set of concerts that ran Jan. 13-15, the ever-intrepid, ever-imaginative Newberry Consort delved into this rich period and hit pay dirt with a transporting and absorbing program devoted entirely to the little-known music of Oswald von Wolkenstein.

The early 15th-century bard Oswald von Wolkenstein was a man of many parts. An Austrian soldier, nobleman, diplomat, traveler and avid lover, Oswald (1376-1445) led a fascinating, globetrotting life filled with adventures and misadventures, including imprisonment and even a shipwreck. On top of everything else, he was a gifted poet and composer who wrote forward-looking music that provided a bridge to the subsequent Renaissance era. The Newberry Consort’s artistic leaders pored through more than 130 of his songs, many of which Oswald preserved in two manuscripts, and selected 14 of them for this offering.

Outside of some religious odes, such as “Ave Müter Königinne (Hail Queen Mother),” which ended the program, nearly everything that Oswald wrote had an autobiographical bent. That was especially true of the opening song, “Es fügt sich, da ich was von zehen jaren alt,” which began fittingly with these words, “When I was 10 years old, I decided I wanted to see the world.” The five verses of that lively musical chronicle were spread across the two halves of the program and provided a helpful narrative structure for the evening.

Drew Minter

Famed countertenor Drew Minter is clearly well versed in the vocal style of this era, and he brought a relaxed eloquence and storyteller’s flair to the extended tale, suffusing it with a touching empathy for Oswald’s pains and fears as the composer grows old. One of six singers and musicians featured on the program, Minter was a founding member of the Newberry Consort who returned to take part in these concerts.

Oswald Manuscript

One of Oswald von Wolkenstein’s compositions in its vibrant manuscript.Oswald’s songs manage to be both simple and sophisticated, with a lightness, plain-spokenness and humor about them. They carry us back to a long-ago time, but also come off as surprisingly fresh and relatable, especially the unabashed eroticism of some of the romantic songs that seems downright contemporary.

While he wrote some of his music in a monophonic style, other works are polyphonic with sometimes surprising dissonances. In his program notes, co-director David Douglass even uses the term “tone clusters” to describe the unexpected clashing harmonies in “Frölich geschrai so well wir machen, lachen,” a delightfully witty and saucy love song that drew multiple laughs. While nearly all of the evening’s selections were songs, the program included two instrumental works, including the captivating “Wolauff gesell,” with some of the program’s most complex harmonies.

Among the concert’s other high points was “In Frankenreich (In France),” a gentle love song. Consort co-director Ellen Hargis has an obvious affinity for early music of this kind, and she graced the lyrics with a floating line and nuanced delicacy. Also noteworthy were the high-spirited “Nu Huss!” with its catchy rhythmic cadence; “Simm Gredlin, Gret mein Gredelein,” another erotic song strikingly rendered by the well-matched Minter and Hargis, and “Komm, liebster Mann,” a round featuring Hargis and Debra Nagy, the concert’s third vocalist.

Mary Springfels

Mary Springfels

Mary Springfels was the concert’s most compelling instrumentalist.Each of the six singers and musicians wore more than one hat during the concert, with Minter, for example, also performing on harp and drums at times. The most compelling of the instrumentalists was Mary Springfels, the Newberry’s founding artistic director who left the group in 2007 but was back for this distinctive program. She split her time between the citole, a guitar-like instrument with a slightly more restrained but no less fetching sound, and the vielle. Springfels held the latter between her legs and played it like a cello, and it had a similarly burnished, amber sound.

Debra Nagy

Perhaps most versatile was Nagy, who contributed vocals on a few songs and played harp as well as recorder and an early oboe. Also taking part were Douglass and Allison Monroe, a doctoral student in historical performance practice at Case Western Reserve University, who switched between a viola-like version of the vielle and the narrower, violin-like rebec. (It would have been helpful if the program or pre-concert lecture would have provided some background on these instruments, which are hardly familiar to most listeners.)

The concert reviewed here was given Saturday evening in the 474-seat Performance Hall at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts. The venue could hardly have been more ideal both in terms of its physical intimacy and acoustics, which are clear and accommodating without being too bright or reverberent.

As is typical with the Consort’s offerings, the program was accompanied by a slideshow that provided not only the English translations of the texts of the songs but also visual imagery drawn from maps and illuminated books and manuscripts of the period, including those containing Oswald’s songs. All that was missing were the German titles of the selections, so that the audience could easily follow along in the printed program.

The projections were rigorously researched and tastefully assembled by Shawn Keener, a musicologist who works as an editor at A-R Editions, a publisher of scholarly editions of music. The images blended together in a subtle, non-distracting way. Purists would likely argue that the music could stand on its own and does not need any visual aids, and that is certainly a valid point of view. But a strong argument can also be made that the visuals helped take listeners back in time, conjure Oswald’s multifaceted world and set the scene for his evocative songs.

Kyle MacMillan

Review: Newberry Consort pays homage to the versatile Count von Wolkenstein

Sat Jan 14, 2017 at 1:49 pm

By Tim Sawyier

The Newberry Consort performed music of Count von Wolkenstein Friday night at the Newberry Library.

The Newberry Consort presented the second program of their 30th anniversary season Friday night at the Newberry Library’s Ruggles Hall. Entitled “The Count,” the concert was devoted to music of Count Oswald von Wolkenstein (1376-1445), a peripatetic nobleman with the singular pastime of recording his personal exploits and musings in song. The performance successfully overcame the surface uniformity of Wolkenstein’s output, and was overall a compelling and expertly executed examination of his oeuvre.

The Consort opened with the first verse of Wolkenstein’s autobiographical “Es fügt sich, da ich was von zehen jaren alt,” and four further verses punctuated the rest of the program. These covered such topics as the hardships Wolkenstein encountered upon leaving home, the places he visited, the languages he spoke, the instruments he played, and his time as a wandering monk. All these were sung exquisitely by countertenor Drew Minter, whose emphatic, bardic delivery made for evocative storytelling. 

The Consort represented Wolkenstein’s bawdier side with selections such as “Frölich geschrai so well wir machen, lachen” and “Simm Gredlin,” the content of which bordered on the pornographic. In the former all the performers contributed vocals in a polymathic display, and in the latter Consort co-director soprano Ellen Hargis achieved a silky blend in the unaccompanied opening duet with Minter. The bucolic “Wol auff wol an! kind” and militaristic “Nu huss!” also found Hargis and Minter in vocal sync. 

In “Komm, liebster Mann” Hargis also collaborated beautifully with Debra Nagy, who lent her burnished vocal timbre to the proceedings along with her expert shawm and recorder playing. The vocal trio of Hargis, Minter, and Nagy closed the evening on a spiritual note in their ethereal rendering of “Ave Müter Königinne.”

Indeed Wolkenstein’s most successful songs are not those that recount the events of his life, but those that mine more spiritual and psychological depths. The highpoint of the night was Minter’s poignant rendering of “Mein sünd und schuld,” in which the count wistfully laments his lost youth and physical decline, exhorting young people to seek God above earthly glories.

The Newberry’s instrumental ensemble solidly supported the solo singing, their rhapsodic, quasi-improvisatory introductions, interludes, and accompaniments both grounding and lending atmosphere to the proceedings. Two instrumental selections each had a poised lilt, and Newberry founding director Mary Springfels was a particularly welcome guest presence on the medieval vielle and citole.

As always with Newberry Consort programs, a significant amount of scholarship went into this production. Director David Douglass deserves plaudits for arranging Wolkenstein’s music into a performable state, which included composing supporting lines where the manuscript provided none. 

Translations were projected on a large screen along with images of manuscripts, neumes, maps, and period artwork in a display curated by Shawn Keener, whose work here was on a par with her commendable contribution to the Newberry Consort’s “Le Roman de Fauvel” last season. Without the variety provided by such multimedia adornments the stylistic homogeneity of Wolkenstein’s music could have made for a tedious evening, but the combined result was anything but dull.

“The Count: Music of Oswald von Wolkenstein” repeats 8 p.m. Saturday at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts, and 3 p.m. Sunday at Northwestern’s Galvin Recital Hall in Evanston. newberryconsort.org

Posted in Performances

Evening of scholarly clowning opens 30th year for early-music masters the Newberry Consort

Newberry Consort playing Elizabethan-era theatrical jigs, with Steve Player as the Shakespearean entertainer Jack Kemp, here with actress Ellen Hargis "The wife" on Friday. (Brian Jackson / Chicago Tribune)
Review: A program of bawdy Elizabethan amusements performed by the Newberry Consort and period comedian Steven Player.
By Lawrence B. Johnson

For the perennially devoted followers of the Newberry Consort, which this season celebrates its 30th anniversary of presenting concerts of music from the Middle Ages to the Baroque, the concert experience is a beguiling paradox: entertainment that’s very old and yet at the same time quite new.

“For us, and we believe for our audience, this music is essentially about the thrill of exploring,” says Ellen Hargis, the Newberry Consort’s co-artistic director. “There’s something really exciting about listening to music with fresh ears, without expectation.

 

“I like seeing something I know as much as the next person. But going back into cultural history changes your world view. It’s not just about music. We have no aural history of this music, so we must glean information from the broader picture. We look at the poetry to understand how the music is constructed, and by replicating the instruments we gain some insight into how the music must have sounded. That’s what I find so interesting – these interrelated parts, this universe of rich possibilities.”

Yet, while Hargis and her fellow performers bring the scholar’s zeal for historical accuracy to their concerts, their wish for their listener is simply a good time. “It’s not an intellectual exercise for our audiences,” she says. “By doing all this back-story work, we enrich the context, but we want people to just sit there and enjoy it. I don’t even write stuff like that – the geek joy — in the program notes. We just want to entertain.”

This anniversary season the Newberry Consort is presenting three such historical entertainments with the intriguingly succinct titles of “The Clown,” “The Count” and “The Queen.” Each program receives three performances in as many venues – at the Newberry Library and on  the two college campuses where the consort holds residency status, Northwestern University in Evanston and the University of Chicago in Hyde Park.

The Newberry’s concept of scholarly amusement, with bold-face emphasis on the second half of that phrase, was delightfully exemplified by the season curtain-raiser Oct. 21 at the library: an evening of “jigs” that gave hilarious new meaning to the term.

In Elizabethan theater, a jig was a comedy – low, bawdy and brief – that might follow a play performance. Imagine: “Hamlet,” topped off by a romp about some poor cuckolded fellow, filled with double entendre and salacious sight gags. All with an added fillip of skilled dancing by a star performer. The biggest such comic star whose name has come down to us from the Shakespearean stage was Will Kemp, the very “clown” of the Newberry’s ambitious show.

And here to portray Kemp was a British master of the style, Steven Player, a lean middle-aged man of, well, Olympian energy, agility and spring. Besides bounding about the stage, folding himself into a trunk (like the Bard’s Falstaff) and gleefully squeezing tush (so of the moment!), Player’s Kemp quick-stepped his way through several jaunty tunes offered by the Newberry’s period-instrument ensemble led by David Douglass, the consort’s co-artistic director and master of diverse violins and viols.

The whole affair provided a vivid and most unusual glimpse into Elizabethan entertainment. And the host consort even provided its table-seated guests complimentary glasses of wine – a fit facsimile of old Sir John Falstaff’s beloved sack.

Next up this season is a concert devoted to the music of Oswald von Wolkenstein, a poet and composer of the early 15th century. That program (Jan. 13-15, 2017) will feature the return of Newberry Consort founder Mary Springfels along with countertenor Drew Minter, a longtime friend of the ensemble.

The season closes March 3-5 with a program that centers on the remarkable figure of the 17th-century Swedish Queen Christina – who dressed like a man and at an early age abdicated to pursue life in the wider world. Musically, Christina’s world included some of the foremost figures of her time, Arcangelo Corelli and Luigi Rossi among them. The Newberry Consort will trace the life of one of history’s most idiosyncratic monarchs.

Related Link:

Lawrence B. Johnson

Newberry Consort opens 30th season with delightful “stage jigs”

Tim Sawyier – Chicago Classical Review

above – Steven Player performed in the Newberry Consort’s season-opening program Friday night at Ruggles Hall.

Friday night in Ruggles Hall the Newberry Library hosted the opening performance of its eponymous Consort’s 30th anniversary season. The program, entitled “The Clown: Kemp’s Jig,” compellingly explored late 16- and early 17-century stage jigs as part of the Library’s commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death this year.

A “stage jig” is not an isolated dance but a full musical tableau with singing, dancing, and acting all interwoven. Performances of such works—“skits” as artistic directors David Douglass and Ellen Hargis called them in their illuminating program note—often followed productions of Shakespeare’s plays, and the professional clowns of acting troupes were usually responsible for putting together these humorous palate cleansers.

William Kemp was one such clown who performed in Shakespeare’s company, and the evening opened with the Consort playing the tune Kemp’s Jig while taking the stage with the cast of singer-dancer-actors assembled for the evening. Headlining the latter group was guest Steven Player, an authority on Renaissance and baroque dance who created the program’s distinguished choreography. He took advantage of the new cabaret-seating arrangement in Ruggles Hall by circulating through the audience during this entrance, and also offered the first of his consistently engaging period dancing—here atop a chest on stage.

The performance entailed three complete jigs: Singing SimpkinFrauncis New Jig, and The Cheaters Cheated, all of which revolved around themes of infidelity and deception. For example, in Frauncis a farmer couple dupes a philandering nobleman into unintentionally sleeping with his actual wife in an early Figaro-esque drama. Sexual puns, conspicuous cross-dressing, and other forms of lowbrow humor abound in these works, and the cast pulled all this off with unselfconscious aplomb to hilarious effect.

Artistic director David Douglass was responsible for getting these jigs into a performable condition. They exist only as scripts in rhymed couplets, which occasionally offer hints as to the music that should accompany them, but often do not. Douglass brought his considerable historical acumen to bear in selecting period “tunes” to accompany the drama, and, as such tunes are just monophonic melodies, also arranged and orchestrated them for the performance. Douglass’ work here was most convincing as the attunement between music and action was superb throughout the night.

Player’s characters were often the conspicuous center of attention, and he brought terpsichorean flair, slapstick acting, and adept singing to his roles. Corey Shotwell’s graceful, inviting tenor and Jeffrey Strauss’ flexible baritone made for a stellar vocal pairing well suited to the chamber scale of the proceedings.

Co-artistic director Ellen Hargis displayed her reliably supple soprano, and her stage direction adeptly organized the sometimes chaotic drama. She collaborated with costume designer Meriem Bahri for set design, which made very efficient use of the limited space and props. Bahri’s costumes were elegant and comely, subtly enhancing the action without ever distracting from it.

Douglass led the accompanying all-string Consort from the violin. The intelligently selected accompanying tunes ran the expressive gamut from lachrymose to euphoric, and the ensemble deftly navigated the many musical moods. The group’s dedication to this repertoire was palpable and evinced why they have been so successful for three decades.

In addition to the three stage jigs the cast offered an “entr’acte” of dances that evoked William Kemp’s Nine Days Wonder, in which the clown supposedly danced his way from London to Norwich entertaining as he went. These were as captivating as the more extended jigs, brought to life by Player’s distinctive dancing and the refined playing from the instrumental ensemble.

 

Tim Sawyier
Chicago Classical Review

Newberry Consort sings the bawdy electric in spirited season opener

Newberry Consort playing Elizabethan-era theatrical jigs, with Steve Player as the Shakespearean entertainer Jack Kemp, here with actress Ellen Hargis "The wife" on Friday. (Brian Jackson / Chicago Tribune)

Early music groups come and go in Chicago, but the ensemble that started it all continues to thrive, setting an example of artistic integrity and sound management for the groups that have followed in its wake.

Having survived a serious funding crisis in 1997 and the retirement of founder Mary Springfels, the Newberry Consort soldiered on, wisely staying small, flexible and true to its musical mission, dusting off forgotten but worthwhile preclassical instrumental and vocal works and presenting them in a fresh, invigorating manner.

Without current co-directors David Douglass and his wife, soprano Ellen Hargis, and their equally committed colleagues, setting the bar high, Chicago’s early music scene would be a far less vital affair. For certain, Chicago would not be the Midwestern hub of historically informed early music performance it is today: We now have audiences and funders supporting a wide range of activity.

The Newberry Consort launched its 30th anniversary season over the weekend by doing what it is known for, building a well-researched program around a nearly forgotten body of works. In this case, the audience was given a rare glimpse into the street theater tradition of Elizabethan England, timed to coincide with the Shakespeare anniversary year.

Casting themselves as members of a traveling theatrical troupe, the nine singers and instrumentalists (that is, a violin band with guitars and lute) presented Douglass’ musical reconstruction of stage jigs, bawdy skits set to popular tunes of the day. These mass entertainments typically were led by professional clowns such as Will Kemp, a popular member of the Bard’s stage troupe the Chamberlain’s Men.

Impersonating Kemp for the weekend performances – of which I caught the Friday night concert at the Newberry Library – was Steven Player, a deft actor, musician, dancer and teacher who specializes in Renaissance and baroque dance.

Cavorting and leering like an Elizabethan ancestor of the late, great British comedian Benny Hill, Player’s jester was a storyteller and singing actor of antic naughtiness, spouting off-color puns, getting touchy-feely with female members of the troupe, dancing gigs on a small wooden stage and atop the cabaret tables around which audience members sat and clapped along with his not always fancy footwork.

It was all great, silly fun, and none of these lowbrow stage shenanigans – think of them as Elizabethan England’s answer to Italian commedia dell’arte — could remotely be confused with High Art.

Although the original texts that have come down to us preserve the rhyming dialogs, the manuscripts contain none of the popular tunes to which the scripts were attached. So Douglass and stage director Hargis had to reconstruct both the music and staging conventions, and did so in consultation with other scholar-performers.

They did a fine job of it, with Douglass providing a playlist of popular Elizabethan ballads and songs that, in the three stage jigs that made up the program, jibed seamlessly with the rhymed comedy as performed by Player’s rubber-faced Kemp and his fellow troupers.

Never mind that the farce – storylines concerned drinking, canoodling, pickpocketing and related lowbrow indulgences – makes today’s sitcoms feel like Moliere. Then, as now, the play was the thing, and the catchy tunes carried the day.

Dressed in costumer Meriem Bahri’s artful recreations of stock Elizabethan theatrical attire, Player and his players entered into the ribald nonsense with gleeful abandon. His bug-eyed Kemp was first among equals in company with the admirable baritone Jeffrey Strauss, the clear tenor Corey Shotwell, and Hargis and Bahri as the resident wenches.

But without a crack instrumental engine driving the playlets, perhaps not even the roaring Player could have suspended audience disbelief. Fortunately Douglass and his string colleagues (Tim Macdonald, Brandi Berry and Jeremy David Ward), and lutenist Brandon Acker, brought the street songs (including “Greensleeves”) to life with crisp vivacity and stylistic insight.

Repeat performances were scheduled Saturday at the Logan Center for the Arts and Sunday at Northwestern University’s Galvin Recital Hall.

It’s good news that Newberry Consort founding directors Mary Springfels, viola da gamba, and Drew Minter, countertenor, will return as guest artists for January concerts devoted to music by the nearly forgotten 14th-century German composer and nobleman Oswald von Wolkenstein.

The 30th anniversary season of the Newberry Consort continues Jan. 13-15 and March 3-5 at the Newberry Library, Galvin Recital Hall and Logan Center for the Arts; 773-669-7335; www.newberryconsort.org.

John von Rhein is a Tribune critic.

jvonrhein@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @jvonrhein

 

John von Rhein, Contact Reporter

NEWBERRY CONSORT REVEALS SOARING MUSIC FROM MEXICAN CHOIR BOOKS

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
freelance critic

A SPLENDID EVENING WITH THE NEWBERRY CONSORT

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. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Newberry Consort brings scholarship and horse sense to delightful “Le roman de Fauvel”

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. 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.

Chicago Classical Review

Ten New Classical Albums

Musica Celestial CDFeaturing Chicago Talent

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!

John von Rhein
Chicago Tribune

The Newberry Consort Unveils Rare Spanish Treasures for BEMF

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 from 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

Newberry Consort full of spirit, polish with program of rediscoveries

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, freelance critic
Copyright © 2015, Chicago Tribune

Smooth control of the phrasing and fine communication with the singers, effects that seemed to lay each song in a feathery bed of accompaniment

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 from 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

The 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 newberryconsort.org or 773-702-2787.

M.L. RANTALA, Classical Music Critic
Hyde Park Herald

Newberry Consort’s Singing Nuns

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.

John von Rhein
Chicago Tribune

Chicago Tribune: Review Feast of the Pheasant

Friday 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

Alan G. Artner, Special to the Tribune
Chicago Tribune

Feast of the Pheasant

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

Alan Artner
The Chicago Tribune

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.

“Celestial Sirens” at the Church of the Covenant

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.

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.

 

Nicholas Jones
ClevelandClassical.com

‘Cantigas’ Bloom Like Roses at Boston Festival

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.

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.

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.org)

Exsultemus (exsultemus.org)

Ken Keaton

Thank you to the following for their financial support

CityArts
DCASE
Elizabeth F. Cheny Foundation
Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation
Global Voices
Illinois Arts Council Agency
Logan Center for the Arts
Paul M Angel Family Foundation
Supported by The MacArthur Funds for Arts & Culture at The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation
The Saints
The University of Chicago Department of Music
UChicago Arts

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P.O. Box 60212
Chicago, IL 60660-0212

The Newberry Consort

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