Medieval music program is surprisingly robust

Performers turn back the clock with medieval Christmas fare


Guest Reviewer

DAYTONA BEACH -- A large audience sat transfixed Wednesday night at Our Lady of Lourdes church in Daytona Beach as a group of six men sang us through a medieval Italian Christmas with a program consisting of religious songs and antiphonal music recounting the Christmas story.

Who would have thought it? Doesn't the conventional wisdom allow that modern audiences don't particularly care for early Western European music? Not so on Wednesday night when Lionheart gave the second concert in the season series presented by Central Florida Cultural Endeavors. May the CFCE tribe increase!

This group's music harkened back to that of the medieval Italian oratory (prayer hall), where people could drop in off the street to listen to a liturgical drama recounting Biblical morality plays.

This was not church music. It was the popular music of the devout in pre-reformation Italy, which might have been called (forgive me) contemporary Christian. While these laudi (songs of praise) were credited to the influence of St. Francis of Assisi, they really belong to a genre started by Philip of Neri in oratories and that grew in the following century into what we now call the oratorio -- works such as Handel's "Messiah." Other, later examples of this genre include compositions by Respighi and Pietro Yon. Modern descendents of this genre include Benjamin Britten's "Ceremony of Carols" (1942) and "The Prodigal Son" (1968).

The voices of Lionheart -- countertenor Lawrence Lipnik, tenors John Olund and Michael Ryan Wenger, baritones Richard Porterfield and Jeffrey Johnson, and bass Kurt-Owen Richards -- are lyric, pure in intonation, and wonderfully blended. Quite often a lower voice provides a drone bass while a higher voice provides ornamentation. The lower voice actually sings a Gregorian chant in very long notes that substitute for an organ, which might have been used were one available in the 13th century prayer hall. This was a practice called "troping" and was to be thrown out by the Counter-Reformation.

Most of this music is antiphonal -- that is, a deacon sings the story and an answering voice sings the part of a character in the Christmas drama. The characters usually include Gabriel, Mary, the shepherds and more.

Most notable in the ensemble was countertenor (male alto) Lipnik, whose phenomenal range is evinced all the more when he shifts into his lower tenor range. These sounds recall Noah Greenberg's New York Pro Musica at his heyday and performances of "Play of Daniel" at the Cloisters museum in New York.

In case you are wondering, Lionheart is named for the hero of the anonymous 14th century romance "Richard Coeur de Lion (Richard the Lionheart)." The mood they conjured Wednesday night certainly transported listeners to the Middle Ages.

Paul Langston is dean and professor emeritus at Stetson University's School of Music.

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

Site design by Chantboy Productions.  Photos by Kurt-Owen Richards except where noted.  All content copyright Lionheart Vocal Ensemble, Inc..  Last updated Wednesday, February 17, 2010