La Scena Musicale

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Festival of Renaissance Music – Conspirare’s Contemporary Twist

Craig Hella Johnson never ceases to amaze us. Just when you think his exceptional musical imagination has surely outdone itself, he comes up with something even more remarkable. His latest achievement was a festival given at St. Martin’s Lutheran Church in Austin and called Renaissance & Response: Polyphony Then and Now. Sound like an article in an academic journal? Perhaps, but that didn’t stop his many followers from selling out four concerts in one weekend and to judge by the concert I attended, enjoying every moment of it.
The basic concept of the festival was to combine music by several of the great Renaissance polyphonic composers – Josquin des Prez, Orlandus Lassus and Tomás Luis de Victoria – with contemporary pieces or responses composed by Robert Kyr. In spite of the umbrella title for the festival, the series went well beyond the Renaissance in its final concert devoted to the music of Bach, but again with a response by Kyr.
I attended only the Orlandus Lassus concert but there is no doubt that both the concept and the execution were exceptionally powerful. This concert had the added attraction of a pre-concert talk by Kyr.
Robert Kyr is a Professor of Music at the University of Oregon. He has composed a huge amount of music in many different genres – twelve symphonies and dozens of choral works, for example – and he has also studied and made performing editions of a great number of Renaissance pieces; in short, he was just the man for the commission Craig Hella Johnson had in mind for this series - someone with an in depth knowledge and love of Renaissance polyphony, who could compose new works, somehow inspired by this music written more than 400 years ago.
I have no doubt that Craig Hella Johnson was thrilled with what Robert Kyr gave him: music of our time of the highest quality, enriched by the polyphonic models, mysteriously bringing to life virtually the entire history of music. No mean feat.
What makes Conspirare’s concerts so impressive is that Johnson, the singular visionary, is also Johnson the gifted master of choral conducting. Conspirare’s nineteen-member Company of Voices is a hand-picked group of professional soloists melded into a vocal ensemble second to none. Craig Hella Johnson is the leader who makes it all work.
I must confess that I attend concerts of early music with a skeptical ‘chip’ on my shoulder. I am all too aware that the further back we go in the history of music, the fewer the facts at our disposal. When it comes to the performance of Renaissance music, in particular, what we know doesn’t take us very far.
In the cases of Josquin des Prez (1450-1521) and Orlandus Lassus (1532-1594), performers are often floundering on basic matters such as pitch, tempo, note values, dynamics and accidentals. We are still arguing about such things in Mozart and Haydn. Going back 500 years or so the questions are far greater in number.
Rather than emphasize what they don’t know, the best interpreters of early music concentrate on the challenges and the joy of opening up the door to the distant past even a crack. They are the archeologists of the music profession. They spend years immersing themselves in accumulated knowledge, then load up and head out into the field, full of excitement about the tiny glimpses into the human experience they might discover.
Orlandus Lassus (or Orlando di Lasso) is usually identified as a Franco-Flemish composer, although he spent most of his early life in Italy and his last 40 years in Munich. For his time, he was extraordinarily well-travelled and prolific. He composed over 2,000 works and set texts in Latin, French, Italian, Dutch and German. He wrote both sacred and secular music; only the former were represented in the Conspirare program.
For modern listeners who are apt to find Renaissance choral music somewhat austere and monotonous, we should keep in mind that behind that conservative persona endlessly praising God, there often lurked an earthier character fascinated by sex and drinking - in other words, an “all too human” composer. Orlandus Lassus was such a composer. In his secular works, he often dealt with both subjects.
In spite of Robert Kyr’s comment in the programme, that the evening’s concert exemplified “the scope and stylistic diversity of Orlandus Lassus’ output,” we were given a very limited exposure to the composer’s range. Instead, all we got we got were motets, a lament and two Mass movements.
Kyr’s “response” first took the form of a lament based on Lassus’ Third Lamentation. which we had just heard. Kyr began where Lassus left off, with free-flowing, harmonically limited polyphony, then gradually went further afield using texts from Psalm 69 and the Book of Jonah.
The concert concluded with a more ambitious work by Kyr inspired, not by Lassus, but by a somewhat later composer, Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1641). The piece, called Sante Fe Vespers 2010, was inspired by Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610.
This is where Kyr showed himself to be in total command of his art and his material. While quoting from Monteverdi, he went far beyond the early Seventeenth Century master to create intricate polyphony and sonorous climaxes only a modern composer could conceive.
Renaissance & Response: Polyphony Then and Now was a brilliant concert that gave the audience a way in to Renaissance music, and at the same time a way to relate its techniques and its contents to the music of our time.
Perhaps next time around, Craig Hella Johnson might enrich the experience even further by also showing us the secular side of the great Renaissance composers.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. NEW for friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, "Classical Airs."

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