Monday, July 2, 2018

An Early Music Festival weekend indicates the field's wide range

For the infrequent visitor to what is categorized as classical music created in the 17th century and
Alkemie focused on vocal works featuring a special type of refrain.
earlier, early music can easily seem like a niche, rather than a vast collection of eras and styles. That becomes evident after you get to know it.


The Indianapolis Early Music Festival under Mark Cudek's direction offers a welcome refutation of a narrow view of the European musical heritage. In the weekend just ended, festival patrons at the Indiana History Center got to know medieval love songs, with Alkemie's program "Love to My Liking: Refrains of Desire in Gothic France," and, moving two and three centuries and two days in the festival schedule forward, "For Two Lutes: Virtuoso Duets from Italy and England," with well-established masters of the instrument Ronn McFarlane and Paul O'Dette.

Musicians at both concerts represent also the age spread of the field, indicating its future health and the continuity of the repertoire and the skills required to perform it.  The young musicians of Alkemie display a dizzying variety of musical connections in their program biographies, including such extra-musical interests as mycology and "bouldering," a verb previously out of my ken. 

Alkemie's concert last Friday had the five members variously engaged with the musical setting that unifies the program: northern France in the 12th through 14th centuries. "Gothic" is a term most commonly associated with church architecture; the music that falls under that description lies upon less familiar cultural terrain. The manuscripts that make it accessible allow for much filling out by performers today: tempo, dynamics, instrumentation, and harmonic support are areas left up to today's exponents.

The ensemble's music is complemented by two members' dancing, especially pertinent in bringing off the charm and vigor of the estampie dance form. Tracy Cowart and Elena Mullins carried out the rounded choreography and gestural formality of the trouvere favorite, sometimes accenting the characteristic rhythms with foot stomps. Floor diagrams of medieval dance not being available to modern research, printed verbal descriptions are the basis for the choreography, it was explained.

There were enchanting a cappella vocal trios by the ensemble's women: Mullins and Cowart joined by recorder player Sian Ricketts. Among the vivid solos was Cowart's "Por mon cuer a joie atraire," with a drone accompaniment by Niccolo Seligmann, playing the mechanically unique viola a chiavi.  Mullins showed herself to be a compelling singing actress with the program's conclusion, "L'autrier chevauchoie," an emotionally fraught narrative about love's pains and pleasures. David McCormick, the ensemble's other member is, like Seligmann, a vielle player.

With a distinct emphasis on the vocal art, Alkemie literally gave voice to our distant cultural forebears
Paul O'Dette and Ronn McFarlane played English and Italian lute duets.
and their struggles with the same passion of love that governs much of our behavior (and our music) today. When it comes to instrumental music solely, a different kind of resonance must be sought. It's a more subtle kind of reflection of national styles, at least as arranged in a delightful concert by O'Dette and McFarlane.


The first half of their program focused on 16th-century Italy, and the most famous name represented was Galilei — but probably because Vincenzo Galilei's son Galileo helped establish, with much controversy, an accurate understanding of heavenly bodies. Vincenzo achieved a more specialized fame, and three pieces by him were a significant part of the concert's first half. 

The turn away from polyphony that Vincenzo Galilei and some of his contemporaries achieved in fashioning the new form of opera was yet to come. Instrumental counterpoint and the influence of the madrigal tradition gave Italian composers an apparent predisposition to setting parallel lines against a melody, giving them an independence that puts the new material on an equal footing. 

There was lots to listen for Sunday in the exchange of materials, sometimes with echo effects, and the imitation of short phrases in different registers. That was evident not only in three pieces by Galilei but also in a selection of several by Francesco da Milano, and — ratcheting up the need for virtuosity — arrangements for two lutes by Giovanni Antonio Terzi of organ pieces by Claudio Merulo.

In contrast, English writers in the same period, as represented by the duo-recitalists, focused more on songs harmonized and dance forms like the pavane and the galliard. John Dowland, the foremost Elizabethan song composer and lute specialist, shows in his Fantasie no. 7 how the spirit of song can be elaborated in extended phrases while the bass line remains simple. This was a solo to treasure by O'Dette. 

And it was with Dowland that the duo ended their appearance after being called back for an encore. Managing the trick of two players on one lute, they played "My Lord Chamberlain's Galliard" with McFarlane standing close behind O'Dette and adding his two hands adjacent to O'Dette's.  It was a marvel to watch as well as to listen to. And it was brought off with the same flair and coordinated attention to detail that characterized the whole concert.