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Early Music Festival: Chantry and Piffaro

Last night, the Washington Early Music Festival brought me to the pretty little church of St. Mary, Mother of God, in Chinatown. It's a Gothic revival building, with gorgeous acoustics, just the place to hear an excellent concert by the chamber choir Chantry and the wind group Piffaro. As designed by the former's director, David Taylor, and the latter's codirectors, Robert Wiemken and Joan Kimball, this program was much more to my liking, after a slightly disappointing experience with Hesperus the night before.

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Los Ministriles: Spanish Renaissance Wind Music, Piffaro
One of the composers featured was Francisco Guerrero (1528–1599), from whom we heard several Marian motets—the title of the concert was Madre de Dios—beginning with both parts of Dulcissima Maria, which featured a reduced number of singers. Chantry is already a small group (I counted 14 people on Saturday night), but the ingenuity of the shape of the basilican apse is its reinforcement of sung sound. There were very few moments where I strained to hear anything from the singers, even when the instrumentalists, wisely placed behind the singers, were at their loudest. (True, I was sitting in the front row, but I think that would be true everywhere in this not overlarge building.) Guerrero's music is usually considered, if it considered at all, as the other side of the coin to Victoria, a Spanish composer who was not trained in Rome (although he did spend some time there). The most beautiful pieces by Guerrero, I thought, were on the second half, the Spanish canciones O Virgen, quand'os miro (à 3, SSA) and Virgen sancta, which is mostly for sopranos alone, with a choral refrain. As it happens, I saw one of my favorite people at this concert, a former professor and a specialist in the Italian lauda. These sorts of pieces are part of that important tradition of popular sacred music, and there are similar pieces that were composed in the New World.

Of course, you could not do this sort of program and not sing Victoria, one of whose pieces, in fact, was the first motet on the program. David Taylor gave an explanatory introduction to dispel any notions that might have been swimming in the audience's minds about the a cappella style. (I wrote about this in connection with our polychoral CD at the Shrine, back in March 2004, which included some pieces by Victoria. The composer himself was known to use instruments to accompany his works, especially in the later part of his career. There are even continuo parts written by him for some of his motets and Mass settings.) I was most impressed by the beautiful Magnificat octavi toni by Victoria that concluded the concert, with its range of quotations and paraphrases of the mode 8 psalm tone. In a sort of diptych, the first half of the concert concluded with another setting of Mary's canticle, the Magnificat primi toni by Nicolas Gombert, a Flemish-born composer who, as you might have guessed, worked most of his life in Spain.

David Taylor led a brief, didactic audience participation, in which we sang the phrases of the Ave Maria chant, to learn the tune that would be quoted directly in Gombert's Gabriel nuntiavit Mariae. This led to some confusion about whether or not the men of the choir would intone the chant again. Probably as a result of that confusion, the motet got off to a rocky start, because of a confusion among the instrumentalists about the transposition of their part (as David Taylor anxiously made clear in what was really a completely unnecessary explanation of that brief error). Such a minor oversight cannot ultimately mar what was an evening of extraordinary singing, poised, with impeccable diction and intonation, and cleansingly pure in tone from Chantry. Likewise, Piffaro's contribution, with guest player Michael Holmes, was extraordinary, with particularly remarkable performances from Christa Patton on shawm, harp, and recorder, and Joan Kimball, in two pieces for Renaissance bagpipes, which made an exceedingly joyful noise.

See the review by Grace Jean (Washington Post, June 6).

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