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Chant and Polyphony at the National Gallery

If you have not been to see the exhibit of manuscript illuminations -- Masterpieces in Miniature: Italian Manuscript Illumination from the J. Paul Getty Museum -- yet at the National Gallery of Art, make sure you get there before it closes, on January 2. On Sunday, the National Gallery Vocal Arts Ensemble offered an excellent program, on the series of free concerts at the NGA, of music transcribed from those manuscripts and polyphony based upon it. It was a chance to hear the medieval notation on some of those pages come to sonic life.

Sadly, fewer people than normally throng the West Garden Court took advantage of that chance. The crowd was still very respectable in size, considering the focus of the program, even if there were no lines snaking through the West Building rotunda. The first half of the concert featured the four male singers of the NGAVAE, the pick-up group directed by soprano Rosa Lamoreaux. Surprising the audience, who were still chatting as the lights dimmed, two of these singers, having discreetly taken their places among the columns and trees, began the dialogue trope Quem quaeritis (What are you seeking?). The praecentor, beautifully resonant bass Bobb Robinson, took the part of the angel, interrogating the women who were looking for the body of Jesus in the tomb on Easter morning, the part sung by one of the tenors. This little dramatic scene was then answered by the authoritative voice of Jesus himself, in the Easter introit Resurrexi (I have arisen), as illuminated by Antonio da Monza in a late 15th-century manuscript in the exhibit.

Aspiciens a longe, antiphoner illuminated by the Master of Gerona, late 13th centuryA mini-nocturn from an imagined Matins service then followed, three responsories, all with illuminated initials in the manuscripts, from three different feasts, the first two Sundays of Advent and Christmas. Each chant was introduced by a Biblical lesson, read in English by bass Robert W. Tudor, all drawn from the book of Isaiah. The first of these, Aspiciens a longe (Looking from afar, for the first Sunday of Advent) had troped interpolations that were not included in the printed program. This piece was illuminated by the Master of Gerona in the Bolognese antiphoner, from the late 13th century, in the exhibit.

In general, this small schola had a rich tone, dominated perhaps too much by Bobb Robinson, but lacked a vivifying sense of rhythmic élan, for my taste. They made a beautiful but sometimes soporific sound. The West Garden Court may be inhospitable for certain kinds of music, but certainly not monophonic singing, which requires a certain monastic discipline to do well. Any bad monk who exhibits his own vanity by trying too much to lead will only protrude vocally and thus destroy the ensemble. This type of singing, and monastic life as a whole, is about self-effacement, and in choir you have to surrender yourself to the whole. There were, at times, minor conflicts between the praecentor, Robinson, and the tenor end of the schola, which tended to try to pull the pitch sharp. These criticisms are of fine points in a performance that was on the whole very enjoyable.

The first half concluded with two laude, monophonic pieces in medieval Italian composed for lay people to sing. Christo è nato (Christ is born) featured countertenor Roger O. Isaacs on the melody of the verses, with the other men on an open fifth drone. This piece had the feel of a sweet lullaby. The performance of the second lauda, Facciam laude a tuct'i sancti (Let us give praise to all the saints), was conceived as a processional song, with a much more rhythmic rendition (the notation cannot be decoded rhythmically, so it is open to interpretation) featuring percussion. This woke up some audience members who had drifted off to sleep.

The second half of the concert was all about one tiny little chant, the antiphon Veni sponsa Christi (Come, bride of Christ), for feasts of virgin martyrs. The male schola performed it by itself first: it's a beautifully simple melody, actually used for lots of other texts, too. The four women of the ensemble then finally joined the men, for Palestrina's motet based on the antiphon (see the score in this .PDF file). Each phrase of the melody is set imitatively, often with an ecstatic melismatic tail. The opening phrase and its characteristic minor third (sol-mi-sol-la-sol-sol) jumps out at you, even in dense polyphonic textures.

The whole ensemble then also presented all five movements of Palestrina's imitation Mass, Missa Veni sponsa Christi, based on his own motet (see the complete score in this .PDF file). Here, too, it was the first phrase of the antiphon that stood out most clearly, usually in the opening section of each movement. The motet is cited in its original mode, mode 8, so the tonal center of the motet is G, and the motet and all movements of the Mass based on it cadence on what we now think of as G major. The female voices were three excellent singers: Rosa Lamoreaux, Gisèle Becker, and Barbara Hollinshead, who was joined by Roger O. Isaacs on the alto part.

This rendition had an excellent pace, on the quick side, with only one major detour from that rhythmic drive, at the homophonic statement of "Et incarnatus est" (And he was born) in the Credo. The Sanctus movement has a very rhythmically active Hosanna section, in a spritely triple meter, which I was happy to get to hear twice. The Agnus Dei movement is not particularly long, but Palestrina, as he often did, augments the number of voices from four to five in the final section. Here, the antiphon phrases are stated in a canon at the octave between the soprano and second tenor parts. Along with the Kyrie, this movement is based on the closest citation of the antiphon melody.

Thanks are due to Stephen Ackert, who organizes the concert series at the National Gallery. He had the wisdom to invite a chant specialist to help in creating this program. Ruth Steiner, professor emerita at Catholic University, did an excellent job in her role as consultant and author of the program notes. Musicologists are always thrilled to see their work have a life beyond the microfilm reader, and as she walked out of the West Building last night, she seemed very happy indeed.


brownpau said...

I was meaning to go to that particular concert, being an avid early music buff, but I had a previously scheduled appointment that day with a loved one in New Jersey, so musical affinity had to give way to true love. Thanks for this review of what I missed.

Charles T. Downey said...

Brownpau, loved ones will always be happy to see you another time, but concerts happen only once. You missed something quite lovely, but there will be other things to hear. Thanks for reading!