Posted tagged ‘folger consort’

Christmastime is Somewhere Around Here: Folger Consort, December 15, 2012

December 17, 2012

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.

Florentine Xmas 4-Ever. Photo by Jeff Malet.

Florentine Xmas 4-Ever. Photo by Jeff Malet.

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.

Other People’s Perspectives: Joan Reinthaler, Charles T. Downey.


Oh, That We Were There…For This Entire Month: The Folger Consort, December 12, 2009

December 13, 2009

Michael Praetorius composed in Lutheran Germany in the 16th and 17th centuries, way before the modern notion of the “holiday” season and its ideal of cozy, reflexive happiness. His music celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ thus has a tone unfamiliar to us: awestruck, ruminative, severe, filled with wonder. His setting of the words “Mein Herzenskindlein, mein liebstes Freundlein” (“My heart’s child, my dearest little friend”), a vernacular (for Praetorius) refrain for the “Puer natus” text, echoes with emotional abandon and desperation for salvation; his “Magnificat” sounds thrilled and a little scared at the majesty of God and His gift to Mary. Even Praetorius’ famous arrangements and compositions, like “In dulci jublio” or “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” (“Lo, e’er a rose is blooming”), arrest modern listeners in part because their sublimated emotional world is so alien to our modern holiday-season Weltanschauung.

This year’s Folger Consort Christmas program, which I attended Saturday night, focuses on Praetorius’ music, and these concerts, well-planned and admirably performed, would make an excellent tonic for anyone sick of the constant drip of treacle that permeates our Decembers.

The consort teams up with the Cantate Chamber Singers and their music director Gisele Becker for this program, and their general approach (as evidenced in other Cantate concerts (1, 2) I’ve heard) suits Praetorius to a T: Rather than reaching out to the audience to overwhelm them with projected sound and emotion, they concentrate on precision and clarity, trusting that such virtues will draw the audience in. In the close quarters of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Elizabethan Theatre, this works great; the harmonies of “Es ist ein Ros” flickered like a candle’s flame, but the complex double-choir writing in “Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ” (“Praised be you, Jesus Christ”) achieved a natural grandeur.

The artistic directors of the Consort, Robert Eisenstein and Christopher Kendall, had to make some decisions about how to integrate instruments into the production; some of Praetorius’ hymn settings call for instruments in addition to voices, and some can be played on instruments in lieu of voices. Here instruments were used to vary textures as much as possible, ensuring that harmonies that can sound bare to modern ears did not become monotonous.

Eisenstein played viol, violin, and recorder during the concert, and several of the other musicians switched instruments frequently as well. Perhaps most impressive among these was Tom Zajac, whose rounded trombone tone gave a special lift to Praetorius’ extravagant setting of “Wachet auf” (“Wake, awake”), which opened the program. In this showcase, Eisenstein and David Douglass played the Italian-inspired violin lines, zooming up and down and around the chorus’ harmonies. The Cantate folks relished Praetorius’ word painting, making a bustle for “Sie wachet und steht eilend auf” (“She wakes and quickly gets up”) and a proclamation from “mächtig” (“mighty”), while ensuring that the underlying hymn tune shone through all the activity.

Wisely, instrumental works by contemporaries were used to give the audience a chance to breathe between Praetorius’ intense compositions. Zajac gave a cool, stylish solo on the Baroque flute in selections from Johann Hermann Schein’s “Banchetto Musicale,” and Samuel Scheidt’s “Canzon super Intradam Aechiopicam” got peppy recorder playing from Zajac, Stillman, and Eisenstein. Though there were some occasional ensemble snafus and moments of insecurity among the other players on Saturday night, generally the assembled players gave an appealing, subtle spring to their rhythms, and it’s always a treat to hear so many different period instruments in a room small enough that you can appreciate their unique sonorities.

The program’s summit came at its close, with five settings of “In dulci jublio.” In the first, Zajac and Daniel Stillman, who was playing some sort of reed instrument not listed in the program, played a duet that seemed magically suspended in midair, with the tang of Stillman’s instrument balanced against Zajac’s trombone and the two instruments’ lines weaving around each other in mutual support. The succeeding choral settings were arranged in order of increasing complexity, moving quickly beyond the harmonization most familiar in modern times to ever more ear-catching elaborations. (I would have lapped up about five more settings…)

Yet the encore, J.S. Bach’s chorale on the “Wachet auf” hymn tune whose Praetorius setting opened the concert, sounded shockingly modern by contrast in its harmonic warmth, even though Bach was only writing 100 years or so after Praetorius. It only emphasized how distant Praetorius’ music is to us, and how fascinating (and refreshing) a committed exploration of something far away can be.

More performances Wednesday through Sunday! See the Folger website for times.


I was raised Lutheran, and a lot of this concert was like hearing my childhood in a 2-hour program. For example, before the concert I was bothering my seatmate by singing the Lutheran Book of Worship version of “Wachet auf,” which for some reason is not the translation used in the Folger program, probably because it is in no way a literal translation with which you could follow the German text. So I may be a little biased.

Among other interesting tidbits, the excellent program notes provided the information that Michael Praetorius was a son of a Michael and for his entire life thus signed himself M.P.C., for Michael Praetorius of Creuzberg. If he were a rapper, MPC would be his MC name, and he would record a song called “Creuzberg State of Mind,” perhaps with Alicia Keys on the hook. I just like thinking about these things.