Reviews

Reading Eagle/Reading Times, Monday, December 21, 1998

Lionheart performance is exquisite

Six perfectly blended voices sing Christmas songs of Medieval England Saturday night in the Chapel of the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth in Wernersville.

By Susan L. Pena, Eagle/Times Correspondent

Perhaps it was a sign of our turbulent times that the Chapel of the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth in Wernersville was packed to capacity Saturday night for a deeply contemplative program of medieval Christmas music by Lionheart, the male a cappella group from New York.

If the audience was searching for something beyond the clamor of the malls and the lunacy of the airwaves, they doubtless found it in this incomparable space and in the stark simplicity of six perfectly blended voices.

Presented by the Jesuit Center and sponsored by various members of the community, "Tydyngs Trew: Feasts of Christmas in Medieval England" was a rare opportunity to hear ancient British carols and other sacred music, much of it based on Sarum chants from the 14th and 15th Centuries.

Renaissance and Baroque music have enjoyed a renewed popularity in the past two decades. Medieval music has been much harder to find in live performance in this area. The pleasure of hearing it performed by a group of this caliber in the kind of setting for which it was meant was overwhelming.

Lionheart is comprised of countertenor Lawrence Lipnik, often a soloist with the Waverly Consort, tenors John Olund and Daniel Clark smith; baritones Richard Porterfield and Jeffrey Johnson and bass Kurt-Owen Richards. All of them bring to this music a clear, straightforward sound and the kind of vocal flexibility it requires.

They arranged the program around the major feast days associated with Christmas: the Annunciation, celebrated March 25; the Nativity, Dec. 25; St. Stephen�s Day, Dec. 26; St. John the Evangelist, Dec. 27; the Holy Innocents, Dec. 28; St. Thomas of Canterbury, Dec. 29; and Epiphany, Jan.6.

In addition to choosing carols obviously associated with these days, they inserted chants used at various times of the day within a monastery, from early-morning Lauds to the final "Nunc dimittis" at the nightly Compline. The moods varied form the celebratory and ecstatic to mournful or meditative.

What emerged was an overview of medieval spirituality, which permeated daily life in a way we can only imagine. The texts, sung in Latin and Middle English, revel in vivid imagery.

In the motet "Venter Tuus" (thy womb), Mary�s womb is given a lavish stream of metaphors: "wedding-chamber, Palatine Hill, royal court, household, temple, treasury, walled city, holy of Holies." Even the triple meter used in much of the music symbolizes the Trinity.

The group began with a Sarum plainsong chant, "From where the sun first rises," heard at first from a distance outside the Chapel, becoming louder as they approached and entered from the back.

They took advantage of the fine acoustics by placing themselves not only in front of the audience but at various times in the aisles or in groupings for antiphonal effects. In the hymn to St. Stephen, they divided into two groups of three; the first sang a verse then created a drone effect as the other sang the last two verses.

For the carol narrating the story of St. Thomas (slain in Canterbury Cathedral by knights of King Henry II in 1170), a tenor and bass formed a duo in the center aisle, singing the verses while the other four sang the refrain at the front and repeated two significant lines form the duet.

A particularly affecting moment was their unison performance of the carol "Lully lulla" � known in modern times as the Coventry Carol., In its original context, the song was sung not to the Christ Child but to one of the babies slaughtered by King Herod.

Their performance of the motet "Gaude Virgo mater Christi" by William Cornysh was exquisite, as was their modern encore, Gustav Holst�s "In the [Bleak] Midwinter."

 

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

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