Classical New Jersey, Volume 2, Number 44, July 1, 1998

Transcending the medieval

Wednesday, June 17

Lionheart: Lawrence Lipnik, countertenor, Jonathan Goodman, John Olund, tenors; Richard Porterfield, Jeffrey Johnson, baritones; Kurt-Owen Richards, bass. "My Fayre Ladye: Images of Women in Medieval England." Presented by the Cape May Music Festival in the Episcopal Church of the Advent, Cape May.


The pre-festival publicity for Lionheart made a point of the six-man group's eclecticism. With a variety ranging from medieval to barbershop to modern pop in their repertoire it was pretty certain that the full house at the Church of the Advent was expecting to have a good time of the classical/pops type. What materialized on the printed program was anything but that. "My Fayre Ladye: Images of Women in Medieval England" was hardly a description which would include doo-wop. As it was, it did not really describe the concert accurately, for there was quite a bit of renaissance music as well, with a considerable amount from late-Tudor sources.

An hour and 10 minutes later with no intermission, after full immersion in medieval and renaissance England and some of the finest ensemble singing this listener has ever heard, the audience had been won over to such an extent that whatever their original expectations, they leapt to their feet in an instantaneous and unanimous standing ovation. Back came the sextet, striding down the aisle from the rear of the church to more applause. After a second return trip an encore was clearly in order. With impish smiles they sang "Meet Me Tonight In Dreamland" with such prize-winning barbershop style that the audience applauded after only two measures.

What created this spectacular conversion of the audience from would-be pops crowd to medievalists was that greatest of transformers: sheer excellence. The six men of Lionheart could deliver a full program of almost anything and convert any audience. Even I might be able to listen to them sing more than four barbershop pieces, and that would be a conversion experience.

The tone for the evening was immediately set as the men began a 15th century "Salve regina misericordie" from the chants of Sarum, which is to say Canterbury In the resonant space their voices floated from the small narthex as if they were in a large cathedral. As the lengthy chant continued the men processed down the center aisle until they stood across the front of the altar. Dressed an in black, even in their modern dress there was something of the ecclesiastic about their aura.

The conceit of female images was worthy of our current social concerns and acted as a rich tapestry into which were woven pictures of "the regal, "the maternal': "the beloved", "the unfathomable', "the hunted" "the sorrowful': and "the triumphant".

The music ranged from settings of Latin texts celebrating the Virgin Mary to clever English language secular texts, some with late-Tudor-style double-entendre. Of the identified composers the best-known to folks who have gone so far as to take a history of music course was John Dunstable (ca. 1390-1453) from the generation after Chaucer. In his Quam pulcra es the listener who recognized the stark outline of the Italian Landini cadence would have found the familiar pattern in ornamented and filled in form.

There were some pieces which were notable for their shifting major and minor modes. In these and a few other works it was made clear how dramatic the introduction of musica ficta was: a musical revolution as startling as any which may have taken place in any culture. It signaled for the first time the long slope toward all the adventures we now think of as Western European music.

But the delights of the concert centered not so much on the various styles, which for most listeners were indistinguishable from century to century. Rather, everyone reveled at some level in Lionheart's musicianship, understanding it to be produced by the subjugation of performing ego. What it took for a unison to sound like one voice was not only intonation of the highest order, but a willingness for each singer to lose the individual quality of his voice in order to produce a perfect blend.

Veterans of the New York area classical radio battle to save WNCN (r.i.p. and r.i.p. also to Philadelphia's WFLN) were reminded of those days when the theme-song of the pro-music folks appeared in this concert. The tale of the doe who cannot die was recounted in Blow thi horne, hunter, the piece which rang WNCN off the air, then brought it back. The final death-knell for WNCN was not so civilized, but don't get me started.

The uninterrupted concert concluded far earlier than most. Nevertheless, many audience members remained long after the singing stopped, chatting with the personable singers. Some commented on how they would never have believed that they would be so excited by music from such an early period.

But true excellence allows no boundaries to limit appreciation.


Lionheart is represented exclusively by Bernstein Artists and records for Koch International.

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