What better way to score a silent film about goings-on in medieval France than with medieval music? Even when the film in question, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” était fabriqué aux Étas-Unis from a source novel written with no obvious concern for historical fact other than that there was a big church named Notre-Dame in Paris at the time.
Hesperus, a powerhouse on the local and national early-music scene, played a medieval soundtrack for the film on Saturday night to close out this year’s Washington Early Music Festival, and their performance — colorful, concentrated, and spontaneous — made it nearly impossible to actually take the movie seriously. The silent-film aesthetic is an acquired one, and Saturday night reminded me that I have not acquired it. The limitiations of the medium lead in Wallace Worsley’s “Hunchback” to exaggeration along every possible axis, from facial expressions to body language to emotions in general. Also, the audiences of the past apparently had a limitless tolerance for watching Lon Chaney as the Hunchback grabbing a rope and ringing a bell. I get that he has great enthusiasm for this task, which is why it could have been filmed from more than one angle, rather than simply replaying the same footage every time.
Such artifice made a striking contrast with the music Chancey, Priscilla Smith, and Rosa Lamoreaux sang and played. They effortlessly conjured serenity, rambunctiousness, tension, officiousness, and even (especially) romance. Only a few times, for fractions of a second, did the music and images not match; normally, the music was so well-chosen to seem an integral part of the scene, like a dancing tune to lead a festival of peasants, or a crusty woodwind proclamation to usher in a nobleperson.
The movie gets better when it begins rushing towards its surprisingly intense climax, but here it was difficult to separate the pathos of the Hunchback as he enjoys a glimmer of sympathetic human contact from the pathos generated by this trio of musicians, especially when the texture thinned out and Chancey was left alone to limn a few final notes as the priest (SPOILER ALERT) laid the Hunchback to rest.
The trio kept it up for 100 straight minutes, too — no intermissions here. Smith handled 99 percent of the wind-instrument work, with a full set of recorders as well as a shawm, early bagpipe, and crumhorn, and I saw her shaking her right hand out a few times towards the end of the film, trying to keep it from going stiff. Her playing showed no signs of fatigue, and she expertly matched the timbres of her instruments to the onscreen action, varying her sound and approach. Smith even sang soprano in a few two-voice pieces and didn’t sound totally out of her league next to her fellow soprano Lamoreaux, who is pretty much the early-music singin’ queen of the DMV.
Lamoreaux handled the lead vocals, obviously, and her pure, even voice blended so well with Smith’s recorders that sometimes it was hard to tell which line was which. Lamoreaux also had the lead on percussion, and particularly the difficult job of syncing her bells with the carillioneurship on screen. Chancey played not only the vielle but also several other stringed instruments, also varying her instrumentation to keep the sound lively and using effects to make the movie come alive. (If you’re intrigued, Chancey, Lamoreaux, and two other people will be doing the medieval-scoring thing to “Robin Hood” in B-more at An Die Musik on Friday.)
As noted, the concert closed this year’s Washington Early Music Festival, and during the (enthusiastic) applause, Chancey asked that we direct some of our approbation to Constance Whiteside, the festival’s artistic director and prime mover. Saturday’s concert drew the biggest crowd of the three concerts I attended; fittingly, it took place at St. Mark’s, the church that has been the center of the festival since it began in 2004. While Hesperus had a unique contribution, their concert sat squarely in the larger WEMF tradition of presenting little-known music with enthusiastic, committed performers at reasonable prices. The WEMF is a summertime oasis from the fall-to-summer run of the standard rep played by the standard people. I hope it keeps going strong in the years to come.
Other People’s Perspectives: Anne Midgette. I swear I was not stalking Anne this past weekend.