A Twelfth Night Bonbon: Armonia Nova at Christ Church, January 9, 2011
Local period-performance group Armonia Nova dropped in just after evening services at Christ Church in Alexandria on Sunday to perform a short concert of medieval and Renaissance French music devoted to merry Christmases and happy New Years. The concert was part of an Armonia Nova tradition of extending the holiday season at the other end— both liturgically correct, given that Sunday was the first of the Epiphany season, and a welcome reminder that one of the blessings of the holiday season is some terrific tunes that have survived the centuries well.
Readers of DMV Classical may be familiar with Armonia Nova from this awesome concert in the DC Early Music Festival last June, and Sunday’s concert evidenced many of the same virtues heard last summer: repertoire to tickle the modern ear, an easy fluency in ancient scales and styles, spontaneous phrasing that makes old music feel modern, and just some beautiful singing and playing.
Soprano Allison Mondel, alto Marjorie Bunday, multi-instrumentalist Jean N. Cioffi, and harpist/music director Constance Whiteside started off a little shaky, with tentative ensemble on “Les anges dans nos campagnes” (better-known to modern English speakers as “Angels we have heard on high”). But they soon found their groove: Mondel and Bunday intricately blending their voices, Whiteside finding the exact spots on the beat that needed harmonic or melodic embellishment, and Cioffi adding different timbres to the mix.
Familiar tunes, like “Veni, veni Emmanuel” and “Noel nouvelet!”, sounded fresh with strong rhythms, strange medieval intervals, and the novelty of ye aulde French strongly pronounced, in all its pungency. Novel tunes evoked the spirit of wonder that animates so much Christmas music, like the harmonies of “Flos un rosa floruit,” a twelfth-century work in which the soprano and alto lines seemed fitted to the words like two vines climbing a wall, or “Guillo pran ton tambourin!”, which cannily closed the program with a rousing dance rhythm and the titular percussion in addition to Mondel and Bunday’s joyful noise.
Bunday sang a clutch of solo numbers in which she demonstrated a keen feel for the rhythm of phrases both textual and musical; it was easy to follow the printed English translations when she was singing her French. Whiteside, in her solos, made melodic lines hang shimmering in the air and spoke volumes with single quavering notes; “Lai D’Aelis,” a fourteenth-century stanzaic piece, seemed to grow like a flower with each elaboration of the main melody. Yet Mondel had the most memorable performance of the evening, a pious song by thirteenth-century composer Blance de Castille called “Amours, u trop tart me sui pris,” where her hushed concentration and clear tones (supported eloquenty by Whiteside) made the composer’s devotion palpable.
Historic Christ Church, where George Washington used to worship when he was in town, has retained its colonial look and feel, which unfortunately does not include robust heating and comfortable pews. Armonia Nova’s decision to present a short, sweet concert was thus welcome indeed. As an encore, they reprised “Les anges dans nos campagnes,” and we all got to sing along in whatever language we could muster. There was definitely some audience uncertainty on the verses, but the “Gloria in excelsis deo” refrain rang out loud and clear, the last time most of us will hear it until at least when the red-and-green M&Ms are in stores once again.
I DON’T WANT TO DISCOURAGE AUDIENCE PARTICIPATION, BUT
In the encore, either I was way off key, or everyone behind me was way off key. That’s all I’m saying.
Updated the post title to indicate that this concert took place in 2011. It’s been a slow start to the year.