2015–2016 Concert Series: “Christmas in Germany”
“The blend between Tempesta and Piffaro was special indeed.”
“Did a tour bus suddenly let out in front of the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul around the same time as its Friday Christmas concert? No, the line stretching down the windswept block was leading to the first joint concert by Tempesta di Mare, Piffaro, and Choral Arts Philadelphia. No doubt their combined mailing lists helped bring together a large crowd for three weekend concerts, plus an ambitious program titled “Advent Vespers, Dresden 1619.”
Because Vespers services tend to be assembled rather than composed from whole cloth, much leeway is possible, allowing the three collaborating ensembles to come up with a varied but stylistically coherent cross-section of music heard at that time and place, mainly Heinrich Schutz, Michael Praetorius, and Samuel Scheidt.
When the concert got down to business with weighty works such as Praetorius’ Magnificat and Schutz’s settings of Psalms 110 and 128 – going beyond chants and hymns that can tax any concert’s pacing – doors opened onto a rich, singular musical world. Schutz drew on any number of gestures (certain kinds of quicksilver rhythm) that originally sprang from the more operatic mind of Monteverdi, with German hymns and chorales as the compositional floor plan. Often in this repertoire, the exterior elements are about formal liturgical functions, but the music transcends that when the inner voices of the vocal writing and the middle sections of the psalm settings slip into more personal expression that tells you how life truly felt in that era.
Antiphonal effects between Piffaro and Tempesta worked particularly well in the acoustical expanse of the Cathedral Basilica. Adding voices to a space with such generous reverberation time created so much sound (even though Choral Arts had just 12 voices – handpicked ones) that the massed ensembles started to cancel out one another. At times, I wondered if I was hearing only 70 percent of the music – disappointing in a repertoire full of fine-cut details.
Periodically, conductor Matthew Glandorf (who also played organ) turned to the audience in an invitation to sing along with the hymns, with music printed in the program. Nice touch, though I felt too distant amid the acoustical expanse to participate. Many of these elements had a chance of correcting themselves in the later performances at venues in Chestnut Hill and Wilmington. I just hope that any disappointment that may have been felt at this concert on Friday won’t stop these groups from collaborating again. The blend between Tempesta and Piffaro was special indeed.” Philadelphia Inquirer, December 22, 2015
“This performance revealed the splendor and ethereal beauty of the Vespers, as well as the magic and excitement of bringing a reconstructed chapter of music history to life.”
“The Liturgy of the Hours, the recitation of certain prayers at fixed times of the day, is one of the oldest forms of Christian spirituality. Vespers the most ancient of these “offices” set a liturgy of prayer and music against the shadow of sunset.
In the 17th Century, Christmas vespers was a festive affair, featuring popular hymns, large groups of singers and instrumentalists in the cathedral. The concert recreated Christmas vespers as it might have sounded under the direction of Lutheran composer and organist Michael Praetorius in 17th Century Germany. The performance featured the 13 voices of Choral Arts Philadelphia and replicas of Renaissance instruments — including dulcians, theorbos, sackbuts, recorders, shawm and violone — provided by Piffaro and Tempesta di Mare. The concert marked the first collaboration among the three performing organizations.
Christmas in Germany: Dresden Vespers 1619 delivered musical splendor in the old and lush tradition. Featuring music by Praetorius, Heinrich Schutz and Samuel Scheidt — three prominent composers of the early 17th Century Dresden court — the program followed the traditional order of the Vespers service, taking the audience through the expectations, solemn reflections and joys of the Advent season.
The beauty of this program lay in the contrast between the simple and the complex. The simple element is the Lutheran hymn tunes that underlie all this music. Choral Arts Philadelphia sang a few hymns in the traditional Lutheran setting. Most of the program, though, featured the complex element: These tunes woven into intricate counterpoint and often decorated with breathtaking ornamentation.
Praetorius was the featured composer on the program. His music straddles an interesting period of old-fashioned Renaissance music and new-fashion Baroque. Because of his position in Ecclesiastical circles — a committed Christian who regretted not taking Holy Orders — he did not write opera or concertos. Yet, he did learn a great deal from the new Italian style and his music is replete with virtuoso singing, echo effects and the use of instruments.
The audience heard his unique settings of such familiar tunes as Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme as well as his less familiar Magnificat super Ut re mi fa sol la, based on the simple melodic motif of six ascending notes of the scale. The offerings from the other composers feature antiphonal writing. Scheidt’s version of Nun komm der Heiden Heiland and Duo Seraphim and Schutz’ setting of Psalm 128 show the influences of the Venetian polychoral tradition.
This performance revealed the splendor and ethereal beauty of the Vespers, as well as the magic and excitement of bringing a reconstructed chapter of music history to life.” Delaware Arts Info, December 26, 2015
“The intermingling of voices and two types of instruments produced a warm jewel that continually exposed new facets.”
“Piffaro and Tempesta di Mare are both early music organizations but they operate in different worlds. Piffaro plays the music and instruments of the Renaissance (roughly 1400-1600). Tempesta di Mare plays the instruments and music of the Baroque (roughly 1600-1750).
In spite of that gap in instruments and styles, they managed to team up with Choral Arts Philadelphia for a three-way collaboration that brought out the best in all three organizations. Piffaro’s instruments added new colors to Tempesta’s, Tempesta’s added new colors to Piffaro’s, and the 13 early music pros fromChoral Arts added a third spectrum to the palette.
Some Christmas music soars. Some bounces. This event mostly featured music that glows. The intermingling of voices and two types of instruments produced a warm jewel that continually exposed new facets.
When was the last time you heard a violin-trombone trio? One of the most striking — and poetic — passages in the entire concert was an interlude in which Tempesta’s concertmaster, Emlyn Ngai, interacted with Piffaro’s two sackbut players, Adam Bregman and Greg Ingles. (The older form of the trombone, the sackbut, is a bit mellower than its modern descendant.)
The three organizations made a critical decision when they decided to base the program on Advent music played at the royal chapel in Leipzig in 1619 — a date on the cusp between the Renaissance and the Baroque. Europeans didn’t yell “Yippee, we’re in a new musical period!” and switch to harpsichords and Baroque violins on New Year’s Eve 1600. The boundaries between periods are fuzzy zones and there’s always some overlap.
The three master composers featured on the program all straddled the line dividing the periods. Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) is usually associated with the Renaissance, while Heinrich Schutz (1585-1672) and Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654) are usually considered Baroque composers. All three composed for the royal chapel around 1619.
Praetorius may have been the senior citizen in the triumvirate, but he contributed two of the most effective works on the program. The finale for the first half was a setting of Awake the watchman’s voices call in which his music captured the rush and excitement of a big announcement racing through a community. The main event in the second half was a Magnificat in which he seemed to give every line a different musical treatment, each calling for a new combination of voices and instruments.
Piffaro’s co-directors, Joan Kimball and Robert Wiemken, share a valuable trait with Matthew Glandorf, the director of Choral Arts: They all like to present concerts that place the music on the program in its historical context. This concert followed the general pattern of a 17th-century Lutheran church service, complete with two sections in which the audience joined in a Lutheran chorale. As Wiemken pointed out, the addition of responses by the congregation was one of Luther’s major reforms.
The Friday night performance of this concert took place at the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul. When the music on the program was composed, the ancestors of modern Euro-Americans were killing each other over issues like the role of the laity in the church service. Today a group of musicians can stage a simulation of a Lutheran service in a Catholic cathedral and we can all listen to it, because the music transcends the furies of the age that produced it. There’s an appropriate holiday message in that, but it’s so obvious it doesn’t need to be spelled out.” Broad Street Review, December 30, 2015
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