Oddly, the Folger Consort‘s latest program, “Florence: Christmas Music of the Trecento,” which I attended at the Folger Theatre on Saturday night, features relatively little Christmas music. It does feature 24 pieces, mostly without a known author, that collectively paint a picture of music of the 13th century in the title town. Whether in sacred pieces or the vernacular religious tunes known as “laude,” melodies soared and fell in ecstasies of notes, yet kept resolving on the same harmonies, and returning to the same refrains. The program itself, organized mostly in tercets of two vocal pieces surrounding an interlude for virtuoso instruments, seemed to mirror the feeling of action circling around a center.
Nevertheless, of the 24 pieces, nine show off the manifold skills of consort program director Robert Eisenstein and guest instrumentalists Christa Patton, Mark Rimple, and Mary Springfels, without making any reference to Christmas. (The title of the tune “Ave maris stella,” another instrumental jam, seems close enough to be counted as Christmassy.) The vocal pieces provide no fewer than five settings of parts of the Latin Mass, which are dependent upon the occurrence of Christmas but not specific to it. Another five praise Mary, who I grant is also essential to Christmas’ eventual occurrence (and whose impregnation is described in various dodgy euphemisms by the songs) but whose story, in these songs, occurs before we go away in a manger on a silent night with herald angels singing joy to the world. So we have five total pieces that clearly evoke the spirit of the season.
Not that the music wasn’t evocative in general! It all started with Trio Eos, consisting of sopranos Jessica Beebe and Michele Kennedy and mezzo-soprano Maren Montalbano, who handled the vocalizing and showed beauty of tone and precision that made even the most tricky melodies feel balanced and unearthly. In “Da ciel venne messo novello” and “Nova stella apparita,” their readings of the rhapsodic verses ached with awe at Mary’s blessing in the former and exploded with joy at the arrival of the Christ child in the latter; the unison refrains, in which the trio attractively blended their distinct voices, felt like a refuge from the intense emotion of the verses.
Eisenstein and his crew made sure that the instrumental pieces and accompaniment were just as distinctive and intense. The program note explained that many of the instrumental pieces were basically just melodic lines for virtuosos to play on, with no arrangements or harmonies indicated, meaning much of what the Folger Consort is presenting is a result of their own choices. They chose well; “Ave maris stella” sounded like a constellation looks with Rimple and Patton plucking a psaltery and harp, respectively, and Eisenstein frequently showed commanding virtuosity on his medieval fiddle. Pretty much every time Patton picked up her over-the-shoulder medieval bagpipe was a highlight, especially when she got to lead the melody in “Benedicamus,” the line buzzing and darting about in a most diverting way. Occasionally, the musicians enjoyed the repetitions of the melodies a bit more than I did, but I understand the exuberance that comes with playing something challenging that you really enjoy. Trio Eos also pitched in on percussion a few times, with everyone shaking or pounding something for the finale, “Gloria in cielo e pace in terra,” a satisfying Christmas-related song in which the trio just barely managed to sing over the exuberant clamor of the instruments.
As you may have guessed, this is not one of those early-music Christmas concerts where you’ll hear a tune or two whose descendants have made it into modern hymnals, especially given that only 21 percent of the tunes played at the concert have anything to do with the holiday. Nonetheless, as an imaginative look back at the spirit of instrumental playing and vernacular religious music, this program is well worth a detour from your last-minute shopping.
The program will be repeated Wednesday through Sunday (with two shows on Saturday!). Ticket info and purchasing here.