Friday, April 14, 2006
Concert Review A tradition of love and death, reborn in Union Hall
Last Saturday, the stage was set at the First Religious Society for an extraordinary evening. Participants in this open ritual found themselves flung from century to century, immersed in intense emotion, tempered with intellectual fire. Techniques passed down from master to student for generations revealed themselves in ever-increasing clarity and brilliance. In the interiors of ancient cathedrals, questions of poetry and politics loomed large, and against a funereal backdrop, reverence for the past dueled with the desire to surpass what had gone before.
No, there really is nothing run-of-the-mill about listening to Renaissance choral music, especially when a group like Exsultemus comes to town. The Cambridge Society for Early Music presented this eight-member vocal ensemble to a full house for the third and final concert of their 2005-06 series. Listeners were presented with a fascinating program that combined musical excellence with a generous helping of food for thought. Divided into two parts, the evening began with a series of laments and ended with songs of love.
"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" goes the old saying, and the music of the first half, by Johannes Ockeghem, Pierre de la Rue, Josquin des Prez, Pierre Certon and Hieronymus Vinders, proved that the principle was in effect before the saying was ever coined. These were laments, for the most part, written by one-time students on the occasion of the deaths of their masters and patrons. Sincere grief was mixed with a hint of one-upsmanship in the tradition of the deploration — a composition that would often reference the style of the departed (while also proving to be a vehicle for the composer to "surpass" it.) Thus, Vinders' "O mors inevitabilis" (c. 1500-1560) and Certon's "Musiciens, chants melodieux" (c. 1515-1572) look back to Josquin's "Nymphes des bois" (c. 1450-1521) written in honor of Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1420-1497) — who in turn had written "Mort, tu as navre de ton dart" in praise of Gilles de Binchois (d. 1460.)
Particulars aside, this is breathtaking music — beautiful and elaborate, often employing two languages at once (Latin for the cantus firmus, the plainchant line that is the center of the composition, and French for the other contrapuntal lines that surround and magnify it.) And Exsultemus did a magnificent job bringing it to life — on the one hand, reveling in the architectural complexity, on the other hand, never losing sight of the overriding emotion. And despite nearly every work calling for a slightly different ensemble (the number of singers ranged from three to eight), the group held on to a stunningly unified ensemble "sound."
When we reached the second half — a collection of motets whose texts were taken from the Song of Solomon — this sound evolved beautifully, and a new warmth and sweetness entered the world that was being evoked. It made me wonder instinctively; what else is this wonderfully flexible group capable of? Exsultemus, as opposed to many of the other groups that come through Carlisle under the auspices of CSEM, is based in the Boston area; anyone who wants to find out will certainly have opportunity to.
It seems to me that the challenge of classical music is simple and constant, for both performers and listeners: How intensely are you willing to involve yourself? Exsultemus met that challenge so well, both in their performance and in their lovingly constructed program, that they made it easy for us to meet it too.
© 2006 The Carlisle Mosquito