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Early Music Ensemble rocks the Renaissance

By Adam Hughes

Section: Arts

April 30, 2010

Two weeks ago, the Brandeis Music Department was catapulted into the 1500s, and it still has yet to return. Following on the heels of the University Chamber Choir’s exploration of Renaissance-era a cappella, the Brandeis Early Music Ensemble presented “Mixed Blessings: Beatitudes and Benedictions from Another Age” to small, intimate audiences on Sunday, April 25, and again on Wednesday, April 28.

I was fortunate enough to attend the Wednesday performance, held in the cozy, reverent confines of Berlin Chapel (the Sunday concert was in Slosberg). The setting allowed the audience to sit right next to the musicians, giving the unique impression of a private performance. The acoustic environment was pristine; every murmur of a viol and breathy pulse of a recorder reverberated cleanly through the chapel.

Under the direction of Sarah Mead, the ensemble presented a selection of early Renaissance music, both sacred and secular, exploring medieval ideas of blessings in various contexts. The first of five short sets was devoted to three secular songs. The very pretty “Your blessed bowers,” by English composer John Farmer, began the program; its eight-part structure, which Mead described as “big and meaty,” is unusual among Renaissance madrigals, and it immediately showed the skill of the musicians at performing the polyphonic music of the era. Countryman John Dowland’s “By a fountain where I lay” showcased the lovely soprano of Claire Arkin, which sounded particularly vibrant in the chapel. The only disappointment was “Beato mi direi” by Cipriano de Rore. The instrumental trio contained an ornamented recorder section that was composed later than the rest of the piece, and consequently it did not seem to gel with the piece as a whole.

The next set consisted of sacred pieces that were intended for use in the home rather than in the church. Mead explained that John Calvin was one of the first biblical scholars who encouraged reading the Bible in the vernacular. He translated psalms into French and set them to folk songs to be used for a more personal form of worship. “Bien heureus est qui conques” came from 1551’s “Genevan Psalter,” and the group played through the original version before augmenting it with Christoph Dalitz’s two-part setting from 2009. “Verordelt o heer,” by Clemens non Papa, was presented by three recorders, and it suffered from occasional lapses in unity. The final piece was the reverent “O bienheureuse la personne” by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck.

The ensemble moved on to four sacred pieces for church worship. They were all written in Latin, and Mead described them as the initial inspiration for the program. They were all even more reverent in tone than the earlier works, and the complex vocal interplay was perfectly suited for church choir settings. Tomás Luis de Victoria’s “Benedicam Dominum” was performed by a recorder quartet; it was the best recorder-driven piece of the concert. Four viols presented Jacob Arcadelt’s “Benedixit Deus Noë,” and Ludwig Senfl’s “Benedicat tibi Dominus” sounded suitably reverential. The anonymously-composed “Ecce sic benedicetur” was one of the most complex pieces, as it started with a solo voice and recorder before the entrance of several viols.

The concert then moved further back in time to the 1400s for Leonel Power’s “Beata progenies” and Gilles Binchois’ “Beatus auctor saeculi.” Both were among the shortest and simplest pieces, hailing from a primal Renaissance sound before more advanced theories of composition developed and featuring the dulcet. Sandwiched between them was Orlandus Lassus’ “Beatus vir,” a viol duet that sounded particularly sweet in the cozy chapel.

Finally, we left for Tudor-era Britain to close the concert with selections from the English royal court. “Benedic, anima mea,” from Alfonso Ferrabosco I, had a very dense viol section, and the ancient instruments acquitted themselves beautifully. The last piece was Thomas Tallis’ “Blessed are those that be undefiled,” which reached soaring heights, particularly in the closing choral section after an extended duet.

The Brandeis Early Music Ensemble is a unique example of multifaceted talent on campus. Most of its instrumentalists play several very different instruments, and almost all of its vocalists play instruments as well. The music they perform is challenging and uncommon, and their audiences tend to be comparatively small. Still, they’re a diamond in the rough in the crowded music scene on campus, and, while they’re not always fully polished, stumbling upon them can still be quite valuable.

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