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16.3.09

Folger Consort's Mosaic

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

The name of the Folger Consort's latest program, Mosaic, evokes a large, colorful image composed of tiny flashes of color. The music presented in it, heard early Saturday evening at the Folger Shakespeare Library, is a cross-section of 13th-century Spain and early 15th-century Cyprus. Music from two rather different sources -- the Cantigas de Santa Maria, associated with the name of Alfonso el Sabio, and a manuscript in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Turin, the sole source of medieval and Renaissance polyphony at the court of Janus, the King of Cyprus from 1398 to 1432 -- was performed in a surprisingly similar way, combining a lone soprano with four musicians playing various instruments. Some liberties had to be taken in performing decisions, to create a homogeneity that was certainly pleasing to the ears but a little disingenuous historically.

Program director Robert Eisenstein remarked in his program notes that the mode of performance applied here to the Cantigas is "somewhat speculative." These monophonic songs, devotional poems praising the miraculous power of the Virgin Mary's intercession in daily life, are notated in a way that tells us only about the sequence of pitches of their melodies -- not the harmony or rhythm in the Folger Consort's adaptation. The arrangement of Cantiga 414 (Tanbeeyta foi a saudaçon), which opened the concert, acknowledged this state of affairs, with the voice first intoning the melody in a rhapsodic, unmetered way over a static instrumental harmony and then gradually evolved into a metered re-imagining of the notated music. Images from the cantiga manuscripts, projected on a large screen behind the performers, along with English translations of the Galician texts, balanced out the experience by squaring the modern adaptation with medieval piety, a world view in which the Glorious Virgin could quite plausibly help a drunken monk make it back to the cloister without getting into too much trouble (Cantiga 47, Virgen Santa Maria, guarda-nos) or cause a candle to descend to a musician who had sung her praises well at Rocamadour (Cantiga 8).

The beauty of the sound rested mostly on the shoulders of soprano Ann Monoyios, whose voiced was scaled appropriately to the Folger's intimate Elizabethan Theater, one of the most aesthetically pleasing venues in the city. While Monoyios sounded small and slightly forced in one recent appearance with Opera Lafayette (but not the one before that), here she sang with clarity, faultless intonation, and a sure rhythmic sense, the last so important for the most complex Cypriot pieces, which recall the style of ars subtilior Avignon polyphony. She was surrounded by a supple envelope of mostly sweet, delicate instrumental sounds, the violin of Robert Eisenstein sometimes doubling the vocal line and the other lines of three- and four-part textures in the Cypriot pieces divvied up among an assortment of instruments. Multi-instrumentalist Tom Zajac again dazzled by playing on any number of sound devices, from bagpipes to harp to drums to flutes and recorders and even a shawm. A few uncertainties crept into the performance in the most rhythmically complicated Cypriot pieces, but dance-like instrumental arrangements of cantigas, like A Virgen Santa Maria (Cantiga 8), hinted at the possible folksong background of these works.

The final program of the Folger Consort's season is devoted to music associated with Don Quixote (April 17 to 19) -- you may recall that Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI have made the definitive version of this program. Next season will be devoted to music from different national traditions composed around the year 1610, with a performance of Monteverdi's extraordinary Marian Vespers in its New Year concert at the National Cathedral.

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