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Friday, Feb. 21, 2014

Orlando Consort Goes Medieval

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At the Early Music Now concert series I sometimes encounter music I never thought I would ever hear in live performance. Like all music students in college, years ago I gained only first-glance familiarity with the 14th-century French poet and composer Guillaume de Machaut. His music seemed dead history to me at the time, and I’ve rarely thought of it since. But attention was renewed at the Saturday evening concert by the Orlando Consort at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

The British-based vocal ensemble is comprised of four singers: countertenor Matthew Venner, tenors Mark Dobell and Angus Smith, and baritone Donald Greig. The first half of the program featured songs from Machaut’s Le Voir Dit, poetry and music written as part of correspondence between the 60-year-old composer and the very young woman he loved. Members of the consort added compelling spoken narrative of the story, ultimately ending with Machaut being rejected.

Machaut’s poetry and music are ultra-sophisticated. Most of the songs were performed with a singer performing the melody with words, accompanied by supportive voices on a wordless mute syllable. While I loved the opportunity to hear this music, and admired the quality of the performance, I am not convinced of its appeal for modern audiences. This is important music historically, but to my ears it sounds theoretical and difficult to embrace.

The second half of the concert presented medieval composers leading up chronologically to the Renaissance. The sound progressively became more familiar to modern ears, and the listening experience became more appealing, with music by Dustaple (most times known as Dunstable), Dufay, Ockeghem, Compére, Brumel, Josquin de Prez, Clemens non Papa and Gombert.

Orlando Consort’s devotion to bringing history alive is estimable. The performances were extremely refined. None of us really know what music of the Middle Ages sounded like in its day, but this seemed as plausible a facsimile as any I’ve come across. Sometimes vocal harmonies were so perfectly tuned that they created a mystical aura and a sort of sensual buzz. After all, a mix of religious mystery with sensuality is the essence of medieval art.

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