Raleigh Spectator Online, Wednesday, January 19, 2000
Classical Notes Online: Previews, reviews and news
By JOHN W. LAMBERT
On January 9, in the auditorium of Ravenscroft's Fine Arts Center, patrons of the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild were treated to an exceptional program of 13th century French vocal music, presented by Lionheart, the distinguished six-person a cappella ensemble. The event, which marked the group's North Carolina debut, was a comparatively rare departure from standard classical fare in a number of ways. For openers, no composers were listed, for the names of the authors of the works given are unknown. Instead, the program listing for "Paris 1200" gave the titles, which were mostly the first lines (incipits) of the selections, together with each work's form -- Gregorian chant, organum, conductus, motet, song, sequence (for brief discussions of some of which, see our preview of January 5, online.
Nineteen pieces were performed, starting with the monophonic conductus "Breves dies hominis," which served as a processional. The singers -- countertenor Lawrence Lipnik (who also plays viola da gamba, and who has visited Raleigh for two conclaves of the Viola da Gamba Society of America), tenors Jonathan Goodman and John Olund, baritones Richard Porterfield and Jeffrey Johnson, and bass Kurt-Owen Richards -- began outside the hall, their voices barely audible at first. They then processed through the auditorium, making their way to the stage, singing of the brevity of life and the merit of virtue as one passes through it.
Many -- but not all -- of the numbers were spiritual in nature, praising God, decrying sins of the flesh, and so on. Two contrasting "Ave Maria" settings provided ample evidence of the art involved in the music of this period -- music which is, alas, largely unknown to contemporary concertgoers. There were many highlights, ranging from the duet "Pange melos lacrimosum," with its many remarkable melismas, to the quartet "Mundus vergens"; in both, the then-sad state of world affairs was variously lamented. More positive messages were conveyed in "Condimentum nostre spei" and "Veris ad imperia"; the latter sings, "To the righteous belongs the kingdom." There was tremendous variety throughout, proving (if proof were needed) that all this music doesn't "sound the same" -- shades of college music history classes, in which chant and its many variants are often treated in the first two or three lectures, never to be mentioned again!
In contrast to the comparative simplicity of most of the opening numbers, the motet "Mens fidem seminat" was a real eye-opener, given its complexity, variety, and overall richness. There were additional delights as the visitors turned to still more worldly fare, some of which was downright salacious -- indeed, a few of the lines would probably have sparked complaints from the Religious Right, had any of those unfortunates been present. A monophonic sequence, "Olim sudor Herculis," featured various solos with intervening choral passages that reminded listeners, in part, that "A man in love squanders time and weeps not, but like a fool he works to waste himself for Venus's sake." (This number wasn't set by Orff in any of that 20th century master's various "Carmina" scores but would have fit nicely into those contexts!) "Exiit diluculo" served as a bucolic last gasp in praise of sensual pleasures before a concluding pair of spiritual pieces returned the proceedings to a higher plane and the ensemble recessed, following the path they had taken at the start of the concert.
In addition to comprehensive notes, full texts and translations were provided, and there was enough light to read them as the program unfolded. Those who did so doubtless found their listening experiences enhanced, but the beauty of the singing sustained even those who hadn't a clue what the numbers were about.
The aforementioned variety in this music astonished and moved this listener and in all likelihood many others as well. Lionheart members afterwards explained that we really don't know with certainty how most of these works were done, originally, and they conceded that they take certain liberties that other groups who specialize in early music do not. Since we don't know, there's little point in quibbling over details of Lionheart's "performance practice." The manner of their presentation made the works they gave seem far less similar than they may, in fact, be. The program ranged from complex pieces for all six voices to quartets, trios, duo, and solos, variously accompanied; and the singers utilized the entire space for their music making, singing in the hall at various locations, from the pit, and on stage. These elements alone helped make the program richly rewarding for the audience, but it was, in the end, the absolute sincerity and commitment of the singers that carried the day -- that and the beauty of the music itself, for the magnificent realization of which the ensemble was warmly and enthusiastically applauded. The six returned to the platform several times before presenting a single encore that brought as much pleasure as the most refined portions of the formal program itself. That encore was... a six-person barbershop version of "Dreamland'! Here, as elsewhere, Lionheart amazed with its beauty and purity of tone, miraculous blend, flawless balance, and seamless projection. 'Twas an afternoon long to remember.
Those who missed the concert may hear Lionheart's commercial recording of this music on Nimbus CD NI 5547 -- which, to our surprise, wasn't on sale in the lobby, following the performance.