Boston Early Music Festival, Day 1: Medieval stories, Baroque dances

 

The Newberry Consort

It’s been a chilly, soggy day today in Boston, but that didn’t stop a large crowd from swimming their way into the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall to hear a pair of sharply contrasting concerts as part of the Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF).

Running June 9th through 16th this year, BEMF is an annual cavalcade of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music featuring top early music performers and ensembles from around the world. I’m covering it along with a raft of other critics from the Music Critics Association of North America, which is also having its annual conference this week.

The evening started with a joint performance by The Newberry Consort and the vocal ensemble Exsultemus of “Rosas das Rosas,” a collection of songs and dances from the “Cantigas de Santa Maria”

Exsultemus

“Cantigas” is a collection of four hundred and twenty-seven pieces extolling the virtues of (and inventing stories about) Mary. It may or may not have been written by the prolific Alfonso X, King of Castile, León, and Galicia around the middle of the 13th century. Listening to the lyrics, it’s impossible not to be struck by just how much the medieval Mary resembles the goddesses of pre-Christian religions. She demands loyalty from followers, rewards the faithful with magic, and generally carries on like something out of Bullfinch. If, as is often suggested, the cult of Mary was a conscious effort by the early church to co-opt existing goddess cults, it clearly succeeded.

The performances were hypnotic and entertaining. Some of the poems are comical and whimsical in their view of Mary’s miracles, others deeply reverential. English translations of the texts were projected on a screen above and behind the performers, as were scans of the illustrations that accompany the stories in their original manuscripts. Twenty-first century technology helped bring this 13th century music to life.

BEMF Orchestra

Next was a program of (mostly) theatre music from the 17th century, performed with great style by the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra. Highlights of the program included a suite of dances from Lully ballets (accompanied by dancers executing period choreography) and suites by John Blow and Georg Muffat. The combination of Baroque-era tuning (A=392 Hz instead of 440 as is the case today) and reconstructions of period wind instruments produced a transparent sound with considerable bite. It’s a different from what most of us are used to hearing from a modern orchestra and rather refreshing.

Tomorrow: 17th century Austrian music by Gli Incogniti, a fully-staged production of Handel’s “Almira”, and Medieval Irish music for voice and harp.

 

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