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31.10.13

Happy Birthday, Mrs. Coolidge!

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Cyrilla Barr, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge: American Patron of Music
Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who did more for American music than perhaps any other single patron, was born on October 30. Each year, the folks at the Library of Congress's free concert series celebrate their greatest Maecenas with a concert on that date, known at the institution as Founder's Day. Mrs. Coolidge gave generously to the Music Division over the years, eventually landing her name on the revered auditorium in the Jefferson Building -- one of the finest acoustics in the city -- not to mention commissions awarded to many of the greatest composers of the 20th century, often before they were widely known. One of my mentors in graduate school, Professor Cyrilla Barr, literally wrote the book on Mrs. Coolidge, a formidable lady who knew good music when she heard it, from Guillaume Dufay to Béla Bartók.

This year's Founder's Day concert was devoted to the lesser-known end of Mrs. Coolidge's interests, early music. Three groups came together to present a long -- perhaps too long -- program of Renaissance music of many different kinds. We started in the late Renaissance with pieces by Giovanni Gabrieli and Carlo Gesualdo, in arrangements performed by the United States Navy Band Brass Ensemble. The Gabrieli pieces were most effective, written for something at least resembling the modern brass ensemble. Gabrieli knew how to write for big blocks of sound and used a broad vocabulary of echos, fanfare motifs, and spatial effects. The only thing missing was a grand space for the sound to fill: imagine the group's three choirs playing to each other from distant corners of a large cathedral or basilica. Two vocal pieces, a madrigal and a responsory for Holy Week (performed in reverse order from what was printed in the program), not surprisingly did not work quite as well.

In the middle of the concert came Piffaro, an ensemble specializing in historical wind instruments, with a program of music by Franco-Flemish composers. They played a lot of music, some of it on recorder consort and some for various combinations of the louder instruments (shawm, sackbut, and dulcian). The most distinctive sound of all was a suite of Flemish tunes, much of it played on three reproductions of medieval bagpipes, simultaneously -- a sound one does not hear every day, to say the least. Ihesus is een kyndekyn eleyn, a homespun Christmas tune, was particularly affecting, the sound of Dutch shepherds serenading the Christ child. The recorder pieces were also pleasing, especially Alexander Agricola's Allez, regretz, one of the pieces included in the Odhecaton A, the first collection of music printed with moveable type (the Library had the copy of this book from its own collection on display in the entryway to the auditorium). Some mistakes marred several of the pieces, some involving fatigue or instrumental shortcomings, others involving dropped beats or early entrances. It would have been better to present fewer pieces in better performances.

The best music was left for last, the learned polyphony of Johannes Ockeghem and the secular songs of Guillaume Dufay, Ockeghem, and Josquin Des Prez, performed by the vocal ensemble Blue Heron. It would be a crime in a survey of Renaissance music not to have at least one cyclic Mass, the highest form of musical art in the period, and that was fulfilled by a single movement of Ockeghem's Missa "Ma maistresse" (performed by four male voices), paired with the chanson on which it is based. I like what Blue Heron, under director Scott Metcalfe, does with this music -- the sequence of pieces based on Clément Marot's Calvinist hymn Estans assis aux rives aquatiques, in ever more complex settings, was ingenious -- but the quality of voices is not as consistently fine as the best ensembles of its kind, like the Tallis Scholars or Stile Antico. Claude Le Jeune's ribald song Tu ne l'entends pas, c'est Latin, about a woman who cannot make the miller realize she would like him to grind more than just her grain, never quite settled into a single key, for example, and minor intonation issues abounded, as did some less pleasing tone quality among the singers.

The next free concert at the Library of Congress is this Saturday, featuring the Danish String Quartet (November 2, 2 pm). The recital by pianist Valentina Lisitsa, canceled during the Federal governmen shutdown, has been rescheduled for November 15, at 7 pm.

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