Marian Devotion From Scandinavia

Anna Carol Dudley on March 27, 2007
Trio Mediæval returned in triumph to San Francisco on Sunday night. The Trio continues to produce hit recordings, and we are lucky that San Francisco Performances has had the wisdom to present them two years ago and again this year. In Herbst Theatre its program of religious music, grounded in 12th- and 13th-century Roman Catholic music, was expanded to include early nonliturgical music and new settings of ancient texts, as well as traditional Norwegian hymns.
Trio Mediæval
The three Scandinavian singers are Linn Andrea Fuglseth, Anna Maria Friman, and Torunn Østrem Ossum. Each sang at least one solo, beautifully. In three-part ensembles, Ossum usually took the lowest part, Friman was typically but not always on top, and Fuglseth, the Trio’s founder, sang mostly the middle line, occasionally taking over the highest. Three distinct voices and personalities emerge, yet when they combine they produce one pure, unforced, special sound. The group employs plenty of dynamic variety, and all three members sing comfortably and with technical assurance within a wide vocal range, but without egotistic effort to "project" to fill the hall. Their pianissimos and feathery little ornamental touches are magical, since by singing a cappella the Trio has no competition from instruments. The program offered a welcome variety of repertoire, interleaving solos with ensemble pieces, placing the singers either widely separated on the stage or close together (the second half began with each singer placed in a different part of the balcony). Over the course of the evening they moved from standard liturgy to Marian songs (in praise of the Virgin Mary) meant to be sung outside of church, and inserted pieces recently written for them.

Distinctive Vocal Sound

An interesting English motet featured Fuglseth singing a Marian text, "Sancta Mater"(Holy Mother), and the others singing a repeated drone on a popular song text, "Dou Way Robyn" (Hush, Robin, the child will cry). The drone was effectively executed, and Fuglseth infused the solo with a passion that recalled her dissertation on the wailing vocal laments known during the Restoration as "mad songs." The piece was the reverse of a similar one from the same period in French, in which the tenor sings a familiar Latin chant on "Domine" while two upper voices sing contrasting love songs in the vernacular. The program credits Nicky Losseff for editions of the medieval songs. I suppose either the singers or the editor have also done some arranging, such as transposing and making decisions about the distribution of voices. In singing medieval music, the singers have created a unique sound and style that has inspired new compositions created for them. Korean composer Sungji Hong wrote a Mass for the Trio, Missa Lumen de Lumine, from which they sang the opening and closing sections in this performance. The Kyrie begins polyphonically, with each voice entering in a low range then developing into three-part sections, some marked by extremely close harmonies. The Agnus Dei begins with a high cluster of intervals of a second, and features a low unison, blossoming upward into similar clusters. English composers Gavin Bryars and Andrew Smith have provided pieces for the Trio, setting 12th-century, nonliturgical Marian poems and using medieval devices like verse and refrain forms, alleluias, and Gregorian chant along with 21st-century harmonies mixed with modal references. Smith has written some intervals a half-step wider than an octave, which to my ear sounded as if they could just as well have been octaves, giving the impression that the singers were out of tune. If he did write an octave, they were out of tune, so my apologies to the composer — but also to the singers for mentioning it, since their tuning is generally exemplary, in both the old and the new repertoire. It seems that Anna Maria Friman will sing the part of Marilyn Monroe in an opera that Gavin Bryars is writing. This is a brilliant move on his part, for she has the hair, and she can undoubtedly do Monroe's breathy baby-voice. Not that she uses it in the Trio, but she certainly demonstrates that she can adapt her voice perfectly to an intimate context. The program ended with arrangements of three Norwegian hymns, plus a lively encore that may have been partly in Norwegian but that included a lot of "doodle-a-doodle-e-dai."