Renaissance Music at ‘berg: A Brief Review

We are into the final third of the semester, and all the work the students have been putting into their performance courses is bearing fruit. Concerts galore! Free concerts, on campus, no less. What are you waiting for?

Tonight the spotlight was on Collegium Musicum, an ensemble that allows students to explore music from the Renaissance and Baroque. It is amazing to think that we have this semester eleven talented students on campus who are sufficiently interested in this type of music (“old and dead” to many) to dedicate their Thursday afternoons to weekly practice, under Dr. Ted Connor‘s expert guidance.

Yesterday’s concert was big, electric, exploring (and exploding into) the space of Egner Chapel in search of optimal acoustic effects, with repertoire that roamed far and wide through space and time. The approach to today’s concert could not be more different: small, intimate, cosy and warm, inviting the listener into the performer’s space, and with a clear focus on a specific time and place (European composers who lived between 1492 and 1648), but equally satisfying for the listener. This was high quality playing and singing, and every now and then I felt myself transported somewhere far away from the twenty-first century.

The group was seated in the acoustic sweet spot, at the head of the chapel (my church terminology in English is not great, somebody tell me what that part is called in proper English, please), with the audience sitting right near them. It was great to hear and feel the music, as if  we were in somebody’s living room where a group of friends just wanted to have some musical fun.

The focus on this specific repertoire still allowed for a lot of variety: some songs were performed with all singers, others as solos with the bass viola da gamba and lute. There was an a capella quartet, a couple of instrumentals and throughout different combinations of voices in beautiful melodies that wove around each other, and changes of instrumentation (with lots of tuning, since they all play period instruments and gut-strings need a looooot of tuning).

The lush sound of the songs with larger formations notwithstanding, for me the outstanding moments were two more intimate ones: “No grave for woe” (Philip Rosseter), and the almost introspective “Fantasia No. 1” (Giovanni Bassano). The first tugged at the heartstrings with such desperate sadness, the latter was performed so delicately it became transparent.

As a flute player, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the flute in its one outing tonight being buried under the other sounds, and I hope to hear more of it in future concerts (if the Collegium is taking requests, here is one!). And perhaps it was a conscious choice not to include the words of the texts, so the audience had to focus on the music per se, but I always like to have a glance at the lyrics before the song starts. Nevertheless, this was overall another fine instance of the music program at Muhlenberg doing something fantastic: bringing music back to life, and inviting an audience to share in a wonderful, intimate experience.

 

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