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Brilliant Debut


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By Loretta Notareschi

Sunday afternoon's concert by AVE, the Artists' Vocal Ensemble, at St. Mark's in Berkeley was a delight for the ear as well as the intellect. Directed by Jonathan Dimmock, AVE attempted to "re-create the 'space' that a choral mass setting would normally enjoy" by performing most of Pierre de Manchicourt's Missa Veni Sancte Spiritus (Mass "Come Holy Spirit") in juxtaposition with an intriguing mix of motets, spoken word, plainsong, and even instrumental music. Throughout this wide variety of repertoire, the singers of AVE almost never faltered in their near-perfect tuning, blend, diction, and rhythmic sense, although their powerful, forward tone came across at times as forced.

The opening of the concert was a gorgeous performance of Josquin's famous Ave Maria (Hail Mary), in a rarely heard 6-voice version. Dimmock divided his 12 singers two by two for this piece, as he did for much of the program, and it is hard to imagine more well-matched pairs. From the rich resonance of the basses to the trumpet-like clarity of the sopranos, each of the six parts of the motet shone.

Avoiding the standard pitfall of monochromaticism that some Renaissance music directors fall into, Dimmock was not afraid of using dynamic and timbral contrast to articulate the structure of the piece. The middle section in triple meter was appropriately joyful and light. The only problem was occasional over-singing, especially pronounced at the ending of the piece, which was performed with too much grandeur for the reverential supplication of the text ("O Mother of God, remember me"), sounding more like a Romantic than a Renaissance cadence.

Perhaps due to this over-singing, the voice of soprano soloist Suzanne Elder Wallace showed a little raggedness in the second piece, an introit chant that she shared with tenor Fred Jodry. Despite this tiny defect, Elder Wallace's performance of the chant was expressive, controlled, and musical, qualities also shared by Jodry's distinctive voice.

Fine intonation

The third piece on the program, the ”Kyrie” from Manchicourt's mass, was again a splendid example of balanced ensemble and expressive interpretation. With the exception of a little bit of sliding from the first sopranos at the close of the first ”Kyrie” section, the tuning was exquisite throughout the movement, in part due to the perfectly matched vowels of each singer.

Next was the ”Gloria” from the same mass, during which the ensemble exhibited a consistent, lovely tone. For my taste, there was not enough of a mood shift to underscore the suddenly slower rhythms at the text "Jesu Christe," but in general Dimmock handled this long-winded movement quite well. In particular, I appreciated his using a smaller grouping of singers at "qui tollis peccata mundi" (who comes to take away the sins of the world). The textural change helped to relieve some of the relentlessness of Manchicourt's polyphony.

The next piece, plainsong on the text "Veni Sancte Spiritus," was performed by alternating soloists and small groupings. The pitching of the sequence seemed uncomfortably high for many of the singers, and a few tuning problems emerged. Following this piece, in the place of the homily, was a spoken recitation of a poem by Jean Racine, and then the ”Credo” from the anonymous Messe de Tournai. Here Dimmock also used a smaller grouping, with six singers sharing some sections of the three-part setting, but with the majority being sung by three soloists (whom, unfortunately, the program did not identify). Most impressive about the performance of this trio was their clean articulation of the short rhythmic cells that saturate the texture of the ”Credo.” All six singers demonstrated exceptional tuning on the exposed perfect consonances of the cadences.

Smooth segue

Following a beautiful performance of Thomas Crecquillon's motet Te Deum patrem ingenitum (God the Father, unbegotten), which particularly showed off the resonance of the bass voices in the ensemble, alto Shira Kammen performed a brief, intriguing improvisation on the vielle. I was at first surprised to see her sneaking out of the group before the end of the Crecquillon, but quickly understood the reason — she began playing before the motet ended, sustaining the exact pitch of the final cadence as her first note. Although she told me afterwards that she simply "made it up on the spot," Kammen's improvisation seemed to me as if it had been planned to echo both the rhythmic modes of the Messe de Tournai's “Credo” and the conventional cadence formulae of the Manchicourt and Crecquillon.

The last four pieces on the program alternated between the ”Sanctus” and ”Agnus Dei” of Manchicourt's mass and ”Nôtre Père” (Our Father) by Maurice Duruflé and ”Panis Angelicus” (Heavenly Bread) by Pierre Villette. The Manchicourt was again nearly impeccable, especially because of the pleasing vocal groupings with which Dimmock chose to differentiate the sections of the Sanctus and the emotional intensity all the singers brought to the ”Agnus Dei.”

During the "benedictus" ("blessed is he") section of the ”Sanctus,” the lowest bass noticeably slowed down the tempo of the entire group. Although it seemed inadvertent, the resultant relaxation in tone was welcome, given the feverish intensity of the previous sections. During the Agnus Dei, the singers leaned into the word "mi-se-RE-re" ("have mercy") with all of the anguish they could muster without sacrificing tone. Similarly, they seemed to relish the dissonance of Manchicourt's distinctive cross relations.

Harmonious contrast

The change of style for the two modern French compositions was somewhat jarring. Although both pieces were obviously influenced heavily by the ancient Franco-Flemish style, they were a bit too sweet in juxtaposition with the comparative severity of Manchicourt's music. Nonetheless, the rich seventh chords in both pieces were just as perfectly tuned as the open fifths of the Tournai mass.

Ending the concert with Villette's piece, which he wrote in 1995, seemed odd to my ears; but in all fairness, the juxtaposition of disparate styles is a programming value of which sixteenth-century choirmasters probably would have approved. Moreover, I was grateful to hear the resonances that this newly formed ensemble has found between the Ars Antiqua, the Ars Nova, and the music of our time.

(Loretta Notareschi is a composer, singer, teacher, and doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley.)

©2005 Loretta Notareschi, all rights reserved