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      San Francisco Renaissance Voices
 
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Racy Paean to Love  (San Francisco Classical Voice Review of September/October 2007 Opera Concerts)

by Scott Edwards

Despite its rare appearance in concerts today, it takes little effort to grasp why William Boyce's Solomon enjoyed such extraordinary popularity during the second half of the 18th century.  Tuneful airs and imaginative instrumental writing brought accolades from British and Irish audiences alike, and the public clamor for editions of the score made multiple print runs a necessity even decades after its London premiere in 1743.

But surely the audaciously prurient text guaranteed its memorability as well as its controversy. While The Song of Solomon was, as the title suggests, the inspiration for the work, direct references to the libretto’s sacred origin are confined to the framing choruses. Instead, Boyce and his librettist, Edward Moore, transformed the material into a pastoral ode to profane lovemaking, dripping with innuendo and barely concealed metaphor.

The most apt way to deliver such a work to an audience today is to exaggerate the playful literary turns of phrase with a similar approach to staging. This was precisely the treatment chosen by San Francisco Renaissance Voices on Saturday at the Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church. Tenor Corey Head, playing a shepherd named simply “He,? made his first appearance down the central aisle stroking a stuffed lamb while casting furtive side glances at the audience during Susan Gundunas’ opening recitative and air as “She.?

In keeping with the creative profusion of racy images that the text offers up, the soloists exchanged comically flirtatious looks and gestures throughout all three parts of the serenata. The action on stage ultimately culminated in Part 3, when the Chorus of Virgins discovered “He,? and, in an unambiguous musical homage to Purcell’s King Arthur, He was relieved of his frigidness.

Head’s light delivery well-suited Boyce’s lyrically agile melodies. Gundunas’ vibrato, on the other hand, was a bit too heavy for my taste, muddying the occasional quick-moving passagework. The overt drama of her delivery could also work to her advantage, when certain lines of text, such as the concluding tutti passage at “Tall as the cedar he appears and as erect his form he bears? in her final air, became all the more spine-tingling through heightened vocal declamation.

Indeed, despite the impishness of the subject matter, Boyce did not shy away from some technically sophisticated part-writing. The exuberance of SFRV’s performance revealed how Solomon is a unique showcase of Boyce’s compositional versatility. The leaping fugal motive in the opening double-overture, thickets of imitative polyphony in “Fairest of the virgin throng,? and the interrupting arpeggiated tremolos in “Obediently to thy voice I hie,? to name some examples, are balanced by more delicate vocal-instrumental duets elsewhere, all of which demonstrate the composer’s sensitivity to striking emotional imagery. Among numerous such instances, one particular highlight was Kate van Orden’s bassoon obbligato during “Softly rise, O southern breeze,? with its extended suspensions folded among the strings’ steady, winding pulse.

Tuning Poses Some Challenges

The other instrumentalists in the orchestra were Cara Fry and Alan Paul on oboe, Daria D’Andrea on viola, and the four members of the Galileo Project on violins, cello, and harpsichord. The continuo group provided an assured underpinning to the ensemble, while the violins played with crisp articulation. Able playing by several of the instrumentalists, however, was marred by some serious and at times intractable tuning issues, particularly among the oboists and even the concertmaster.

Not enough time was spent coordinating parts between the oboes and violins, who were often doubling one another, especially in the Sinfonia that opens Part 2. During the tenor and first violin duets in “Balmy sweetness, ever flowing,? it was disappointing to hear that tuning issues remained unresolved through each successive repetition. It is hoped that the instrumentalists will have an opportunity to iron out these problems before their final performance next Saturday at Old First Church.

More positively, the ensemble was complemented by a confident, well-balanced chorus. Boyce’s opening chorus is of an extraordinarily complex design, colored by chromatic rising harmony during the most stable homophonic passages and rapid fugal sections working through an octave-leaping motive. The choir was assured and practiced, even through the lengthy group trill at the conclusion. The unaccompanied three-part Chorus of Virgins was another highlight, exhibiting a flawless blend of voices. The chorus’ fine work is a testament to the exceptional musicality of SFRV’s music director, Todd Jolly.

Boyce’s numerous anthems, overtures, and symphonies have received a mixed blessing through several recordings in recent years. It is wonderful to be able to hear so many of these pieces performed anew by contemporary ensembles. When some musicians settle for vague articulation and middling tempos, however, they fail to show how thrilling his music can be. Despite certain flaws, San Francisco Renaissance Voices offered a peek at the technically dazzling side of Boyce that other ensembles struggle to produce on record. The performance was often exciting and even eye-opening, and I was pleased to hear this innovative ensemble in performance once again.

Scott L. Edwards is a Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley studying 16th- and 17th-century music.

©2007 By Scott L. Edwards, all rights reserved.

When Two Worlds Meet  (San Francisco Classical Voice Review of January 2007 Concerts)

By Scott Edwards

 

It is a rare event to hear European and Chinese early music side by side, let alone to even guess what Chinese early music might have sounded like. But just such a program was put together by the San Francisco Renaissance Voices and the San Francisco Joyful Chinese Ensemble on Saturday in Berkeley.

 

Besides providing an appropriate concert in celebration of the Lunar New Year, the collaboration seems to have been inspired by a specific piece: the Messe des Jesuites a Pekin, written by the 17th century Jesuit composer Charles d’Ambleville. While d'Ambleville served as procureur of the Compagnie de Jésus at Rouen, France in the 1620s, little else is known of his life and no evidence suggests he ever spent time in China. Nonetheless, the Jesuits had already cultivated a decades-long presence in China by the mid-17th century. Given the Society’s well-known use of music in its missionary work, it would not be a surprise for this piece — and the several others included on the program — to have been performed in Jesuit religious services in China.

 

So how might such a religious service have proceeded? Todd Jolly, the music director of Renaissance Voices, decided to perform d'Ambleville’s Mass setting in alternatim fashion with traditional Chinese music. In other words, Chinese instruments took over the role that French, Italian, and Spanish services traditionally assigned to the organ during this period. The result brought these two musical cultures into close proximity, reinforcing the precarious nature of the general cultural encounter between Europe and China in the early modern period, and demonstrating how these musical traditions, placed side by side, could make the one sound so radically different in the context of the other.

 

Between the lions

The result was a series of unforeseen encounters throughout the concert, brought immediately to the foreground by an extremely theatrical opening sequence. When the lights first dimmed in Trinity Chapel, we were greeted not with the choral voices one usually expects in such a setting, but rather by two dancers, Jonathan Jiang and Gary Tang, beneath the canopy of an elaborate lion costume, performing a traditional Southern Lion Dance with percussion accompaniment. The colorful costume was matched by richly varied percussive sounds. The performers’ athletic precision was essential, especially if they were to navigate the narrow confines of the central aisle and the graded steps of the crossing with their limited visibility.

 

Their dance was followed by a tolling gong that announced the procession of the singers to the stage, each of whom carried a red lantern while singing a song in Chinese simply titled “Happy New Year.? Once assembled on stage, oboist Nicholas Rastegar and organist Grace Renaud provided an instrumental transition from the spectacular opening to the first of a series of motets. Rastegar, a recent graduate of UC Berkeley’s music department, already has an accomplished sense of articulation, and it will be great to see his onstage confidence increase as he continues to perform.

 

Before launching into d'Ambleville’s Mass, Renaissance Voices performed a series of brief sacred works by Jean Courtois, Francisco Guerrero, Michel-Richard de la Lande, Alessandro Costantini, and Tomás Luis de Victoria — a broad spectrum of composers, encompassing work from across the European continent and over multiple centuries. The variety was fitting, given the cosmopolitan nature of the Jesuits’ mission and their close affiliations with musicians wherever they went. Courtois’ four-voice Venite populi terrae was a suitable opener for the set, with its injunction to “all the earth’s peoples? to gather in witness to God’s works.

 

While the text is a celebratory one, Jolly opted for a more reserved tempo, perhaps to clarify the vocal delivery and accentuate the carefully articulated structure of the music according to the verses. If the Courtois seemed rather slow, the following works were more unbridled in celebratory expression. The villancico by Guerrero and the motets by de la Lande and Costantini highlighted specific cross sections of the group. The Guerrero and Costantini showed off the polyphonic capabilities of the high voices, while de la Lande’s Cantate Domino emphasized the strength of the group’s low voices in assertive, homophonic writing. The final motet in the first half of the concert was Victoria’s elegant and unpretentious O quam gloriosum, a testament to the composer’s masterful motivic writing and an appropriate choice for the set, given Victoria’s position as the first maestro di cappella at one of the Jesuits' flagship Roman institutions, the Collegio Germanico.

 

A choir, an erhu, a dizi

Before the Victoria and after the Courtois, the San Francisco Joyful Chinese Ensemble provided interludes of traditional Chinese instrumental music in near-constant four-part polyphony. In one sense, this ensemble was a good counterpart to Renaissance Voices as another idea of how four-part polyphonic music might sound. Compared to the choir, the overall range of the instruments was higher-pitched, and the music was nearly always dense, complex, and fast-moving. The instrumentalists’ skills were unequivocal, as each musician played from memory and in deep concentration. A standout performance was given by Xiong Qi Ming, rising to his feet for a refined solo on the erhu, a two-stringed violin, made languid by his dancelike gestures and nods to the audience. His extraordinary showmanship was later highlighted in the second half of the concert by the flamboyant flutter-tonguing and pitch-bending of his solo on the dizi, a bamboo flute.

 

Renaissance Voices performed d'Ambleville’s Mass after the intermission, with music from the Joyful Chinese Ensemble as antiphon substitutes. Although this setting of the Mass Ordinary was published in the mid-17th century, it would not have been too out of place in a late 16th century collection. Such a conservative approach to composition is perfectly in keeping with Jesuit musical ideals of continuous consonant harmonies and unobstructed textual delivery. This makes small gestures, such as the unexpected yet brief switch to the minor during the Benedictus on "Ecce panis" all the more poignant in what is ultimately a beautiful work. The more jarring harmonic moments were the alternations of Mass setting and traditional Chinese music, for which I had to keep readjusting my ears to two incompatible tuning systems. It was precisely such a musical dialogue with which the Jesuits must have been confronted everywhere they went, making these two different types of music such a fascinating experience in alternatim performance.

 

Famous for their creativity in incorporating local practices into their worship, Jesuit missionaries in China undoubtedly would have invited local musicians to help make their services more palatable to non-Catholics, but certainly there would have been a lot of trial and error in the process. Conflicting tuning systems would have been only one issue among radically different approaches to musical practices and performance. This was brought most unfortunately to the foreground by a couple of instrumentalists, apparently unaware that their conversation could be heard in the nave during the choir's performance. This did not detract, however, from Renaissance Voices’ focused musical delivery.

 

As a group, Renaissance Voices is a bit top-heavy due to an overly large soprano section, and it would be nice to hear the inner voices strengthened by equal numbers. Nonetheless, it is wonderful to have a musical group tackle such a challenging repertory. They have come a long way since their first concerts a couple of years ago. Clearly, Jolly has a good sense of what his group can do, having selected music that shows off their strengths. Long may such imaginative programming continue.

 

(Scott Edwards is a Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley studying 16th and 17th century music.)
©2007 Scott Edwards, all rights reserved

 

Ghosts of the Past (San Francisco Classical Voice Review of October 2006 Concerts)
by Heuwell Tircuit

Tackling the serious side of this week’s holiday devoted to the departed, the San Francisco Renaissance Voices concert on Saturday at Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church presented significant contrapuntal works from 15th century France and Burgundy. Director Todd Jolly’s program included two major masterpieces, the Requiems of Pierre de la Rue (1452?-1518) and Johannes Ockeghem (1410?-1497), as well as the traditional accoutrement of related shorter pieces, mostly by Antoine Busnois (1430-1492). It was a once in a lifetime occasion, since you rarely, if ever, get to hear even one of these marvels.

 

There is a more elevated experience in hearing these works than the average music lover might expect. The emphasis is on decorous beauty rather than picture painting in sound, a far cry from what requiems were to become. The two requiems are more abstract than the operatic requiems that came between those from Mozart and the present day. Instead of frightening, their aim is to console, and when you hear them you experience something akin to spiritual levitation. And, that’s exactly what Jolly achieved on Saturday.

 

Early requiem settings never included all of the formal liturgy. The Catholic Church, still smarting from the Reformation, became exceedingly touchy about any alterations of its liturgy. So some major sections were left to be sung in their original Gregorian Chant settings. Hence, Ockeghem’s Missa Pro Defunctus — which is its original title — noticeably doesn’t include a setting of the famous “Dies Irae.? There’s a practical reason for this: the length of the “Dies Irae? poem is nearly half the length of the total text.

 

Master of the form

As far as it is known, Ockeghem was the first to compose a contrapuntal requiem, and he broke technical ground in the process. Flemish by birth, he was first noticed as a bass of exceptional vocal ability in Antwerp’s Notre Dame church. This led to work for the Duke of Burgundy in Brussels and later for several successive kings of France, a stint in Spain, and finally back to Flanders. All the while, he left a mark on Renaissance music that extended all over Europe, especially with his 14 Masses, motets, chansons, and others. He became at least as large an influence on the Renaissance as Beethoven was on the Romantic period, and set up many of the principles that would peak with Palestrina a century later.

 

Upon his death, virtually all the major poets and composers of the day wrote memorials to his life, or as they were called, Déplorations. When the Italian humanist Francesco Florio visited Tours in the 1470s he described Ockeghem’s personality with raving admiration: “The treasurer of the church of St. Martin and master of the royal chapel, who excels in virtue of his voice and art. You cannot but love this man, his handsome stature, so much does he shine in wisdom, so much does he shine in his manner and his words, and also his gracefulness.? (Florio went on and on like that to make it seem as if the composer possessed all of the world’s virtues and none of the vices.)

 

Frenchman Pierre de la Rue, also a singing composer, first worked in Siena, and later in Brussels, where he studied with Ockeghem. He expanded on Ockeghem’s style by experimenting with contrasting registers, plays on words, letters within the words, as well as something like musical acrostics. But, technical matters aside, he never quite reached the expressive power of his master, or if he did, I’ve not come across it.

 

A dignified recognition

Jolly observed nearly all of the liturgical niceties of the period, although it would have been a chorus of men and boys back then, not men and women. The evening began with a solemn church bell for about 30 seconds, followed by the chorus quietly singing the Gregorian “Dies Irae? backstage. Then came the entrance of the chorus for the performance of la Rue’s Requiem. And, the first half of the evening ended with funeral motet Delicata juventutis (“Youthful transgressions?).

 

Following intermission, there was Antoine Busnois’ antiphon, Anthony usque limina (“Anthony, to the furthest bounds?), followed by Ockeghem's Requiem, and to round off, Busnois’ memorial tribute to Ockeghem, In Hydraulis (“At Water [Organ]?). Throughout the program, each segment was preceded by a brief few notes of hand bells to assure the vocalists of the pitch placement.

 

Performances were excellent and admirable all evening, and created a feeling of calm and well being, interrupted by salvos of applause. I did notice, however, that fatigue began to set in during the last 15 minutes of this two-hour concert. Little slips of intonation started to turn up, which was especially noticeable when textures thinned down to one or two musical lines. Those little flaws, however, where never disruptive to any great degree, and indeed, only curmudgeons would have noticed.

 

It all added up to a uncommonly dignified recognition of Halloween, and All Saints and All Souls days, beyond the reach of any commercial vulgarity, which is what most of today’s observances of Halloween and Christmas have sunk to.

 

(Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago's American and the Asahi Evening News.)

©2006 Heuwell Tircuit, all rights reserved

 



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