Arts & Events

Berkeley Early Music Festival Offers Myriad Delights

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday June 06, 2014 - 06:58:00 PM

The twelfth Berkeley Festival and Exhibition of Early Music got under way Sunday, June 1, 2014, with a 4:00 pm concert in St. Mark’s Episcopal Church by the group CIARAMELLA. Praised for performing intricate 15th century counter- point “with the ease of jazz musicians improvising on a theme,” CIARAMELLA specializes in extemporized polyphony over monophonic melodies and songs. As the concert began, three bagpipe players entered from the rear of the hall and marched solemnly through the audience, just as 15th century strolling players would have paraded through a village, gathering an audience along the way.  

Instrumentally, CIARAMELLA features bagpipes, sackbuts, double- reed shawms (precursors of the modern oboe), recorders, lute, guitar, and percussion. Set to anonymous 15th century texts, the instrumental songs “depuis le doloreux parti/since our sad parting” and “Se mon flageolet joli/ If my pretty flute” illustrated, first, a melancholy longing, and, second, a playful double entendre inviting a lass to ‘play’ the swain’s attractive ‘flute’.” CIARA- MELLA co-director Adam Gilbert then led four recorder-players in the Kyrie and Gloria sections of Heinrich Isaac’s 15th century Missa Je ne fay plus. CIARAMELLA next featured dance music by 16th century composer Tielman Susato, with shawms, sackbuts, bagpipes, and lute bringing the first part of the concert to a rousing close. 

After intermission, CIARAMELLA’s shawms and sackbuts performed Ludwig Senfl’s florid 16th century polyphonic interpretations of German folk- songs. Then the group launched into the Spanish repertoire, first with pieces from the Canary Islands, then with works by the 17th century Spanish composer Gaspar Sanz. Especially lively was the Sanz piece Jácaras, whose syncopated rhythms associated with flamenco-like bulieras brought to mind an Arab musical influence. Finally, the whole group of shawms, sackbuts, bagpipes, guitar and percussion played a rousing Sardanas to close the program. 

The second evening of the Early Music Festival, again at St. Mark’s Church, was, alas, a flat-out disappointment. The local group CANTAINBANCHI, which means ‘those who sing on benches’, or street-musicians, was short one string- player due to illness. Consequently, with only a harp, a vielle, a psaltery, a recorder, and percussion, plus two voices, CANTAINBANCHI, an outgrowth of Ensemble Alcatraz, offered a surprisingly lightweight sonority. Further, their t wo female vocalists, Susan Rode Morris and Allison Zelles Lloyd, failed to project the texts of the 14th century French and Italian pieces they sang. Thus, not even a virelai ballad by Early Music superstar composer Guillaume de Machaut managed to light a spark in this ill-fated concert. 

Day three of the Berkeley Early Music Festival began with a glorious triumph, overcoming what could have been a disaster when soprano Julianne Baird, who was scheduled to perform with Sex Chordae Consort of Viols, had to cancel due to illness. However, noted soprano Christine Brandes stepped into the breach, learned the music in two days, and gave a stunning performance in songs by late 16th-early 17th century English composer William Byrd. In a pro- gram dedicated to Elizabethan consort songs, Sex Chordae featured vocal pieces by Byrd and Tobias Hume, interspersed with instrumental works by John Dowland. 

A highlight of this 5:00 pm concert at St. Mark’s was Christine Brandes in a stark vocal rendering of the Catholic William Byrd’s elegy “In angel’s weeds” upon the death of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, a Catholic persecuted by Queen Elizabeth, who sought to stamp out Catholicism and establish England as a Protestant nation. Equally moving was Brandes singing Byrd’s elegy “Ye sacred Muses” for his teacher, Thomas Tallis, which closes with the moving refrain “Tallis is dead and Music dies.” Then, in a different mood, Brandes gave a spirited performance of Byrd’s “Susanna fair,” a song relating the Biblical tale of Susanna and the Elders. As sung by Christine Brandes, this Susanna defiantly refused to allow herself to be compromised by the lecherous elders. In three songs by Tobias Hume, Brandes was, in turn, pleading in the lovelorn “Fain would I change this note,” mournful in “What greater griefe,” and playful in the homage to “Tobacco.”  

Led by director John Dornenburg, Sex Chordae consort presented a rich texture of viols in their instrumental pieces by John Dowland. For contrast, in the Hume songs, the bowed chords produced a gruff, masculine sonority. In the program’s final set, Christine Brandes was sprightly, then mournful, in “My mistress had a little dog” by William Byrd, and bitterly lamenting in Byrd’s “Though Amarillis dance in green.” All told, this entire program was a tour de force for Sex Chordae and, above all, for the brilliant Christine Brandes. 

On Tuesday evening, June 3, the Early Music Festival moved to First Congregational Church for a concert by Ars Lyrica Houston with soprano Céline Ricci. In a program loosely organized around the notion of “taking flight,” director Matthew Dirst led Ars Lyrica Houston in a delightful mixed-bag of works by composers Jean-Baptiste-Féry Rebel, J-J Cassanéa de Mondonville, Alessandro Scarlatti, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, and George Frederic Handel. Opening the program was a bumptious set of “Plaisirs Champètres” by Rebel, a composer who languished in the shadow of the great Jean-Baptiste Lully at the court of Louis XIV at Versailles. Next came a work by Mondonville, “Pièces de clavecin avec voix ou violon,” in which soprano Céline Ricci artfully navigated this work’s demanding vocal roulades. Alessandro Scarlatti’s “Sonata in C minor” featured excellent playing by cellist Barrett Sills; and the following piece, an anonymous work entitled “La Folia,” featured the bright, clear, and assertive timbre of Adam LaMotte’s violin along with the plangent chords of Richard Savino’s guitar. 

After a brief intermission, Ars Lyrica Houston played Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s “Sonate à huit instruments,” which featured exquisite work by Mary Springfels on viola da gamba. Finally, topping off the program was the cantata “Tra le fiamme” by the young George Frederich Handel. Com- posed in Rome in 1707 to a libretto by Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili, “Tra le fiamme” takes up imagery of butterflies drawn to a candle’s flame and Icarus flying too close to the sun. There seems to be an implicit warning here, as evidenced also by the repeated phrase “e t’inganna una vaga beltà/deceived by an indistinct beauty.” Scholars wonder whether Pamphili was warning Handel to keep his distance from soprano Vittoria Tarquini, who was someone else’s mistress. Or did Pamphili want the young Saxon composer all to himself? Whatever the message, it was beautifully sung Tuesday evening by soprano Céline Ricci, who has performed all over the world, from the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg and Vienna’s Musikverein to Disney Hall in Los Angeles, and now, to our great pleasure, in Berkeley. 

Day four of the Berkeley Early Music Festival was highlighted by the visit of Belgian group Vox Luminis. Led by Artisitc Director Lionel Meunier, Vox Luminis is a choral group of twelve voices backed by a continuo of Masato Suzuki on organ and Ricardo Rodriguez Miranda on viola da gamba. In their Wednesday evening concert in First Congregational Church, Vox Luminis performed works by 17th century German composer Heinrich Schütz, followed by works from the forebears of Johann Sebastian Bach.  

In excerpts from Schütz’s Musikalische Exequien, Vox Luminis brought vocal clarity and passion to their performance of sacred music based on the Kyrie and Gloria movements of a mass commissioned for his own funeral by the prince Heinrich Posthumus von Reuss. In the second part, Schütz, who spent consider- able time in Venice, where he was influenced by the music of Monteverdi, musters a double choir of eight voices in an essentially homophonic style. Finally, the third extract, specifically composed as funeral music, represents the soul of von Reuss ascending to heaven accompanied by seraphim.  

After intermission, Vox Luminis turned to motets composed by various members of the Bach family. Johann Sebastian Bach himself was featured in the final work, “Ich lasse dich,” performed on Wednesday evening by Vox Luminis. Thus came to a close the first half of Berkeley’s eight-day Festival of Early Music. (Part 2 to follow)