Friday at the Boston Early Music Festival

Stile Antico

In general, I spend a lot of my life fighting the idea that you
have to have started studying choral music at the age of 5 and
have the ideal voice and be able to sing perfectly in tune with no
instrumental support to sing the vocal polyphony of the sixteenth
century. This is true in the sense that you don’t have to make
tennis your life to enjoy getting exercise that way, but probably
nobody will enjoy watching you the way they’ll enjoy Roger
Federer.

The members of Stile Antico all started studying choral music
at early ages, and they have impeccable intonation and gorgeous
voices. And the audience really enjoyed their program of 16th
century music to texts from the Song of Songs.

There’s a tradeoff in singing polyphonic music — you can blend
all the voices into a beautiful sound, or you can make the voices
all sound different so the audience can hear the individual
lines. I believe this group probably performs this balance as
well as can be expected, but Emmanuel Church isn’t the right place
to err even a little bit on the side of the beautiful sound, and
there were places where I couldn’t follow the inner lines. But
when I could, I thought they were singing very “horizontally” for
a group that size.

Another problem with Emmanuel Church is that while it’s a
beautiful live space for some kinds of music, it isn’t at all kind
to musicians who want to provide verbal discussion of what they’re
doing. So I can’t tell you whether the remarks from the sanctuary
were incisive and illuminating, because I really couldn’t hear
them well enough. Based on the program notes, they may have still
been arguing with some straw man who thinks the author of the
Song of Songs wasn’t thinking about sex. But maybe
the straw man is real flesh somewhere, or they were saying
something subtler than that that I missed.

And while we’re complaining about Emmanuel Church, the
temperature outside was a balmy 70-something (Fahrenheit), and
inside it was in the 90’s. This made it even harder to
concentrate well enough to follow the inner lines.

Micrologus

The people who play Medieval music in concerts will be the
first to tell you that they are doing a lot of “reconstruction” in
order to play pieces that have parts and rhythms. We have
fragmentary notations for the tunes and sometimes a bit of an idea
for a harmony part, but usually they’re completely guessing about
the rhythm, and often completely composing any kind of
harmony.

I haven’t been going to many concerts like this, because I
often find that the composers of modern reconstructions of
Medieval music aren’t as good composers as the 16th 17th and 18th
century composers who wrote the other music played at early music
festivals, and you can’t do everything.

But this was the second performance this year by people who do
this that I’ve really enjoyed. I assumed on Tuesday that I was
enjoying the Judith composition (Dialogos doesn’t even
claim to be “reconstructing” anything actually performed in the
sixteenth century) because it was Renaissance polyphony, which is
my favorite form of music in the whole world. But this
performance of Italian music from the fourteenth century was just
as fascinating.

Since I already complained about Emmanuel Church as a venue for
polyphony and as a space for concentration by the sleep-deprived,
I will only remark here that there was probably some beautiful
harp playing on this concert that I couldn’t hear, in spite of
having a fairly close seat. Someone should tell harp players that you
can’t hear lap harps in a space that seats hundreds of people.

But the singing and the percussion and the wind instruments all
came through very well.

The trumpets were, alas, only playing
rhythmic drones under the bagpipes. I should note that this was
the only brass playing in the entire official Festival
Program. Since there was also very little reed playing on the
the official programs, I would suggest that the organizers either
rethink their priorities, or change the name Boston Early
Music
Festival to Boston Early String and Flute
Festival.

Other remarks

I had intended to also review Tangled Mysteries: Clavichord Music of Renaissance Poland:
Judith Conrad, clavichords
, which I enjoyed very much,
but I have to be getting to the exhibition to pick up my
instruments. The short review is that it’s fascinating music
which should be played oftener, and which the performer
(disclosure: my sister) did a very good job of making accessible
to a fairly diverse audience.

The evening and 11 PM concerts were the first two that had the
kind of attendance I would have expected from earlier
festivals. Emmanuel Church was essentially sold out for
Stile Antico, and most of the seats that were any
good were taken for Micrologus. This probably
happened largely because of the word-of-mouth recommendations
from people who saw their performance earlier in the week, which
I didn’t get to, but which was reviewed
by the Boston Globe.

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