Epiphany on Capitol Hill: Armonia Nova at St. Mark’s, January 6, 2012

This year, Armonia Nova brought their Twelfth Night concert to St. Mark’s on Capitol Hill on the actual twelfth night of Christmas, Epiphany, celebrating the manifestation of God as man in the recently born Christ. But the concert also celebrated the tenth anniversary of Armonia Nova’s cheering holiday tradition: a relaxed, intimate post-December 25 concert presenting lesser-known treasures of the medieval and Renaissance repertoire, and doing it with style.

Artistic director and historical harpist Constance Whiteside told the audience that Friday’s concert featured some of the best of the previous nine years of Twelfth Nighting. There was accordingly a higher proportion of Xmas Classix than at last year’s edition of this concert, which was the first I had attended.

Armonia Nova performing last year's Twelfth Night concert. Photo by Louise Krafft.

They certainly did justice to the more familiar tunes. Whiteside strung together a dulcet prelude on “Es ist ein ros entsprungen,” in which she carefully selected every note for maximum impact, creating a rapt atmosphere even before soprano Allison Mondel and alto Marjorie Bunday beautifully intertwined their voices in tender harmonies. Whiteside also got to shine in a solo fantasy on “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” finely shading her timbres as the music shifted from low to high on the harp to create a feeling of entering into light as the piece ended. “Remember, o thou man,” which included countertenor Corey McKnight and Yayoi Barrack on the viola da gamba, pulsed with devotion in time to the call-and-response of Thomas Ravencroft’s haunting writing. (With respect to this last tune, I admit that my judgment of what is a well-known yuletide song is colored by my parents’ wildly extensive CD library of Christmas music from centuries ago, which is exactly the ground that Armonia Nova is plowing. CVS won’t be piping anything performed Friday over its speakers next December, to my everlasting dismay.)

Yet part of the fun of these concerts is discovering new songs of the season, and thanks to my nonattendance in prior years I was introduced to some beauties. Bunday sang “A solis ortus cardine,” a chant melody for an English Christmas Eve ceremony, with quiet, aching intensity. McKnight gave a similarly affecting reading of Jacques de Cambrai’s thirteenth-century “Chanson pieuse,” well-shaped and in luminous voice. In the canon “Nowel: owt of your slepe aryse,” the three singers came together without instruments, their voices close and shining in the small space. (Among its other pleasures, this concert reminds us that it’s really amazing to hear a lovely voice used well from 20 feet away, not to mention three such voices.) All the players joined for more overtly joyous celebrations in “Verbun Patris unmanatur,” a medieval English song, Guillaume Dufay’s jumpily rhythmic celebration “Vergene bella,” and the Provencal song “Guillo, pran ton tamborini,” the last featuring Whiteside on tambourine to goose the dance rhythms.

Besides Barrack’s pinched tone and intonation problems on the gamba, the only clunker in this performance was its opener, “Ding! Dong! Merrily on high,” in which it proved impossible for the normally rock-solid ensemble of Bunday, Mondel, and McKnight to adopt the exact same tempo when melisma-ing the word “Gloria.” The group’s rousing performance of the closing “Veinticinco de diciembre” (with its delightful “Fum, fum, fum!” interjections) naturally led to an encore, which was a repeat of “Ding! Dong!” in which the audience was invited to sing along. If the professionals couldn’t stay in sync, we surely couldn’t, and pretty much every possible tempo was represented in the subsequent multi-car pileup of a group rendition. However, the group had one more trick up its sleeve: the presence of post-concert cake, a large sheet inscribed with frosting wishing Armonia Nova congratulations on ten years of Twelfth Night. A sweet ending for a treat of a concert.


Regarding Corey McKnight:

Corey has had the fortune of singing on 12 Chanticleer recordings. Two of the songs from those recordings are also part of the movie soundtrack for the Jack Black film “Nacho Libre.”

I always enjoy any little dispatches from the non-classical world that make it into performer bios, but that should read as follows: “Two of the songs from those recordings were the recipient of the highest possible honor in classical music: selection for the movie soundtrack of the Jack Black film ‘Nacho Libre.'” I mean, it’s Jack Black. He was in that remake of “King Kong” that no one but me liked. And some other stuff. And “Nacho Libre!”

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