Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 25, 1999

Latin is far from dead at a Lionheart show

Tom Strini

Latin sounded very much like a live language on the lips of Lionheart on Saturday evening.

The sextet . . . sang Parisian conductus, organum, motet, monophonic song and chant from circa 1200 with superb diction and a storyteller's feel for text.

Music history remembers that time and place as the musical primordial ooze from which counterpoint and, eventually, the harmonic structures unique to Western art music evolved. That is no doubt true, but Lionheart made a strong case for this music as heightened speech and for poetry's primacy over music.

That makes sense. The music, built on perfect intervals with rhythms that jog along with the words, has a certain sameness about it. The texts - all in Latin verse, save one prose piece in French - were dazzling in language, subtle in allusion and surprising in range of subject matter. The Marian odes were to be expected, but those warmly human and ambiguous meditations on the nature of moral behavior could have been written yesterday. And who would have guessed that those steamy, monkish meditations on Venus and her commands or that the screed against gossip and slander existed, at least as musical texts?

The words, by authors unknown, pour out for the most part in steady triple time that the Lionhearts made almost conversational. This is not to say that they weren't singing; they were, indeed, in bell-clear pitches and, in the conductus numbers, in crisp, even dance-like rhythms. They rendered the chant in soaring, open tones that rang through the vaults of St. Joseph Center Chapel. They created a world of shading within the narrow conventions of the style, and the subtleties became more telling as this Early Music Now series concert went on and the ear became more attuned.

All that fine singing served the words elegantly for the most part, and sometimes ardently. Richard Porterfield's graceful translations helped, but how nice it would have been to put the program down and hear and understand the language of the Romans.

I should have listened to my high-school Latin teacher 35 years ago. It's not a dead language.

Click to "Paris 1200" for details on the program or "Paris 1200" for our recording.


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