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Ave Maria


Jonathan Dimmock

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We Appreciate

By Rebekah Ahrendt

The glorious sounds of early Renaissance polyphony filled St. Mark's in Berkeley Saturday night, courtesy of AVE, the Artists' Vocal Ensemble. Director Jonathan Dimmock's highly skilled ensemble of singers offered an ear-tickling performance of some of the most beautiful pieces of this period. The theme of the evening was Marian devotion, a subject that inspired composers of the time to write much of their loveliest music.

The concert was performed without a break. That is no mean task when the pieces are so demanding for the singers. Yet sensible programming provided variety for the audience and relief for the singers. Contrasting full-ensemble pieces with small groups of soloists, the concert remained lively and captivating throughout. Each of the 15 singers, plus Dimmock himself, was thus given a solo as well. Good use of the available space was also a feature of this performance, with the singers moving to a different place for every piece.

The best-known composers of the late 15th and early 16th centuries were featured in a performance loosely modeled on the structure of the mass. Thus, Josquin des Prez' four-voice Missa ‘Pange Lingua' was interpolated with a selection of plainsong, hymns, and motets by composers like Johannes Ockeghem, Pierre de la Rue, William Cornysh, and others.

An esteemed source

A particular treat was three pieces from the Eton Choirbook. This important collection of works from the early Tudor court was probably copied around 1505, and is the only source for the one surviving work of Robert Hacomplaynt, Provost of Eton College in the early 16th century. His Salve Regina demonstrates the five-voice texture prominent in English polyphony at the time. Like the program as a whole, Hacomplaynt's work was divided into tutti and soli sections. The ensemble was dispersed across the stage in three groups of five singers. The central group sang the soli parts. Especially moving was the duet on “Vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra” (Our life, our sweetness, and our hope) sung by soprano Susan Judy and alto Jesse Antin; their voices mingled beautifully. After this delicate duo, the entrance of the full ensemble on “salve” (hail) was powerful. The group did a great job with this extremely complicated piece, full of tricky rhythms and difficult dissonances.

Also from the Eton Choirbook, and almost as difficult, were Cornysh's Gaude Virgo Mater Christi and Robert Fayrfax's Magnificat ‘Regale.' The Fayrfax is scored for four lower voices, sung by tenors Dan Hutchings and Ed Betts, and basses Hugh Davies and Raymond Martinez. The men's voices blended very well, and they successfully negotiated the complex rhythms. Unfortunately, they sang from the altar, which in St. Mark's is a bit of an acoustically dead zone, so some parts were difficult to hear. Not so for the Fayrfax, which the full ensemble sang out in front of the choir. This interesting piece contrasts sections of plainsong, sung by the men, with elaborate polyphony. Though not as technically complicated as Hacomplaynt, Fayrfax's brand of part-writing features extreme ranges, from stratospheric sopranos to infernal basses. So elaborate is the polyphony that the words often get lost, thus justifying complaints at the time about the evils of polyphonic writing.

The simplicity of plainsong was a welcome relief from these complexities. The women of the group were particularly brilliant in this respect. Soprano Andrea Fullington gave a lovely reading of the plainsong hymn Audi, filia (Listen, daughter). Her high, clear voice rang out, sailing smoothly through the elaborate melismas of the hymn. The Alleluia. Felix es gave soprano Tonia d'Amelio an opportunity to shine. Her striking tone and good control brought out the melismatic beauties of the Alleluia's verse. Alto Suzanne Elder Wallace led the women in a fine performance of Beata es, Virgo Maria.

Masterly composition

All this provided good contrast to the central work of the program, Josquin's “Pange lingua” Mass. Based on a popular hymn tune, this mass is of the imitative paraphrase type. In other words, the tune is treated imitatively in all voices at the beginning of each mass “movement.” In a long section like the Credo, the tune keeps returning. This tune was especially attractive to a composer like Josquin for its memorable profile (a minor second followed by a descent and then a leap of a fourth), and the challenges of its Phrygian mode. AVE gave a dynamic performance of this mass. Rhythms were sharply accented, and the text carried well due to the singers' good enunciation and Josquin's transparent textures. The effects were alternately powerful, hypnotic, or delicious.

The biggest challenge in the music of this program was balance. With such high sopranos and low basses, the altos and tenors often must fight to be heard. For the most part, AVE handled the problems well. My only real complaint was the description of the music in the program as being “late medieval.” Though this designation highlights the general problems of periodization, few would agree that this concert had anything to do with medieval music.

That is but a minor complaint that bears no relationship to the high quality of AVE's performance. Though “Artists' Vocal Ensemble” describes who is in the group, I would rather suggest “Awesome Vocal Ensemble” to describe what they do. Their rare combination of talent, experience, and dynamism made this one of the most delightful concerts of polyphony I've heard.

(Rebekah Ahrendt holds the artist's diploma in viola da gamba and historical performance practice from the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. Currently, she is a graduate student in historical musicology at UC Berkeley.)

©2006 Rebekah Ahrendt, all rights reserved