Arts & Events

San Francisco Early Music Society Presents VAJRA VOICES

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Sunday January 07, 2018 - 03:02:00 PM

In a series of concerts throughout the Bay Area designed to ring in the New Year, the vocal ensemble Vajra Voices, led by their founding Director Karen R. Clark, performed medieval music ranging from ca. 1150 to 1377. I attended the Berkeley concert on Saturday evening, January 6, 2018, at St. John’s Presbyterian Church. Presented under the auspices of San Francisco Early Music Society, the concert featured selections from such musical and literary luminaries as Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), Perotin (organist at Cathedral Notre Dame ca. 1200), and Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377).  

In program notes, Karen R. Clark emphasized the selection of works celebrating the turning of the seasons at Winter Solstice, the opening of new possibilities in the New Year, redemption after the fall, and radiant light arising out of darkness. Vajra Voices was joined in these concerts by instrumentalists Shira Kammen on medieval harp and vielle and Kit Higginson on recorder and psaltery. The seven vocalists of Vajra Voices include Lindsey McLennan Burdick, Amy Stuart Hunn, Allison Zelles Lloyd, Phoebe Jevtovic Rosquist, Cheryl Shafer Moore, Celeste Winant, and Karen R. Clark. In the highly melismatic singing, altos, sopranos, and mezzo sopranos form ever-changing vocal combinations, their richly textured voices blending beautifully. Occasionally, soprano Allison Zelles Lloyd did double-duty by playing medieval harp accompanied by Shira Kammen on vielle and Kit Higginson on recorder.  

The program opened with the song Annus novus in gaudio from the St. Martial manuscript (ca. 1150). “Let the New Year be celebrated in joy,” exclaims the text. “Let singers and instrumentalists be praised.” Next on the program was an instrumental offering by Shira Kammen on vielle, followed by the florid song Gaudia debita temporis orbi from the St. Martial manuscript. In this brief work, soprano voices soar above the lower voices in celebrating the turning of the New Year and the redemption by the new Adam (Christ) of the sins of the old Adam. Then came a set of works by Hildegard von Bingen, including O quam mirabilis est, O virtus sapientiae, a work accompanied by magic tricks with metal rings performed by Kit Higginson, and O quam magnum miraculum est, which latter featured the earthy voice of Karen R. Clark. An instrumental interlude offered airs on chants of Hildegard played by Shira Kammen on vielle and Allison Zelles Lloyd on medieval harp. Next came an organum from the St. Martial manuscript, Mundo salus, followed by three more songs by Hildegard von Bingen. Another instrumental piece featured harp, vielle and recorder, and the first half of the program ended with Verbum Patris humanatur, one of the earliest surviving three-part pieces of music, from the St. Martial manuscript. 

After intermission Vajra Voices returned to perform works from the 13th and 14th centuries. First came the organum Alleluia Nativitatis by Perotin (or as he sometimes called Perotinus). As successor to Leonin as organist at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, Perotin revolutionized medieval polyphony, taking advantage of a new, more refined system of notation to indicate rhythm. Typically, Perotin wrote highly melismatic upper voices over extremely long notes, derived from Gregorian chant, in the tenor (literally, held) part. His Alleluia Nativitat celebrates the birth of the Virgin Mary. Perotin’s massive works, the justly famous Viderunt omnes and Sederunt principes, though too long to include in this concert, are the earliest known four-part music in European history. Next on the program were works by Guillaume de Machaut, the dominant figure in both lyric poetry and music in 14th century France. This set opened with an instrumental offering on airs of Machaut arranged by Shira Kammen for harp, vielle, and recorder. Next came the motet Quant en moy/amour et biauté/amar valde. In this work love is both celebrated and bemoaned when it is unrequited, as the upper voices sing of bittersweet longing while the tenor drones on the words “very bitter.” Following this motet came Machaut’s witty rondeau Ma fin est mon commencement, in which the composer creates a musical text that literally describes the cyclical structure of this music.  

The final set of this concert offered 14th and 15th century music from England, including two songs from the Trinity Carol Roll (a parchment ca. 1400). The program closed with a 14th century English song celebrating Christmas, Now is Yole Comen Anon. Bay Area audiences owe a pleasant debt of gratitude to Vajra Voices and San Francisco Early Music Society for inaugurating 2018 with such a fine concert offering infrequently heard music from the Middle Ages.