"Early Music Festival Programs Nos. 1 and 2

Indiana History Center

June 29 and July 1

Every time Hesperus returns to our environs as part of Festival Music Society’s summer Early Music Festival, you can count on something special. Whether it’s an unusual program or merely performing excellence in more standard fare, this Washington-based group always lands on top — even when part of the geared-to audience doesn’t show. Last Friday’s FMS opener was most unusual.

Entitled “The Wild Kingdom,” this Hesperus appearance was billed as a family concert, though no children were present. But those mainstays who faithfully support FMS programming each year appeared in abundance and seemed to respond well to Hesperus’ five performers and their depiction of the bestiary or “book of beasts” — as revealed through narration, music and mime.

This medieval picture of animals relies on some observation and much “scholarly” imagination, but no scientific study whatever — a trait of suppressed medieval thought. Dressed in a black body-leotard, Hesperus mime Mark Jaster emulated each animal in turn, as narrator Oran Sandel described it. Tina Chancy, Charles Weaver and Gwyn Roberts supported them with mostly medieval music played on various period instruments. Such real animals as the cat, the mouse, the crane and the ape were merged with fanciful creatures like the mermaid, the satyr, the phoenix and the unicorn.

Jaster’s miming on all fours — e.g. the cat scratching, sniffing, yawning and pouncing — was smoothly and supplely done. Using viols, recorders, lutes and an early flute, our players selected from period composers such as Heinrich Isaac, Gulliaume de Machaut and Thomas Morley. These Hesperus performers easily maintained the high standards the group’s given us in the past.

Sunday’s program, featuring 10-performer Boston Camerata, proved equally enthralling in its own way. Its music jumped a few centuries farther back to where the lion’s share of it that has survived is sacred — an exception being Carmina Burana. And I don’t mean the famous 20th century setting by Carl Orff; I mean those lusty medieval songs residing in the Beneldiktbeuren manuscript of approximately 1230 AD — the “original” Carmina. After much scholarly reconstruction, Camerata director Joel Cohen has created a “presentation” version of these secular verses about the basic drives of human beings as seen through the eyes of heretical priests and various other clerical hangers-on.

The music, played by five instrumentalists and sung by two tenors, a baritone, a countertenor and a soprano, is primarily melodic and rhythmic. Any harmonies are primitively derived entirely off a single, drone-like, continuous “home” key, sounding against mostly single higher keys, which form simple harmonic intervals, and create simple, modal scales. For our harmonically conditioned ears, this can sound monotonous — that is, till we begin to notice the remarkable complexities of the rhythmic structures against the melodic lines. With these adjustments to our “hearing” aesthetics, we experience as much textural richness as what’s come to us from later centuries.

Evidently these factors were (subconsciously) well absorbed by the audience; they gave Boston Camerata a very deserved standing ovation.

 

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