Art Sheinberg believes Renaissance music is undergoing a second renaissance. The oversold house at Christ Lutheran Church for Música Antigua de Albuquerque’s performance in Santa Fe on Sunday, Dec. 15, was a testament to his assertion; but though the music was masterfully brought to life, this reviewer must confess to feeling stuck in the dark ages.
A few days prior to the show, the founding member of the early-music ensemble told Pasatiempo, “One of the indicators of how popular [medieval and Renaissance] music has become is that now they’re making violas da gamba in China.” Sheinberg himself plays the instrument, a six-stringed viol that dates back to the 15th century. He estimated that he and his wife Colleen Sheinberg (also a founding member of the ensemble) possess about 80 reproductions of early-music instruments — besides gambas, lutes, rebecs, and other stringed instruments, their collection includes reeded instruments like the rankett, cornemuse, and shawm, as well as flutes, recorders, percussion instruments, and more.
Música Antigua formed in 1978 with an initial focus on Spanish music. Now the group’s ever-evolving and expanding repertoire (“I’m sure we must have done 4,000 different tunes in the repertoire altogether,” Sheinberg said) covers a number of European countries and about seven centuries of music, primarily from the medieval and Renaissance periods, but occasionally including “that modern stuff, the Baroque.”
In addition to putting together four programs a year, the group engages the community through educational outreach, mentorship, and free performances in places like retirement homes. The six members are all accomplished musicians with solid educational and performance backgrounds, and it shows. Most are comfortable with a wide range of period instruments. Their faculty is particularly impressive given the uniqueness of each instrument even compared to others of its kind. There was little standardization in instrument manufacture in the medieval and Renaissance periods, “so there’s no end to the variety.” In other words, each sackbut, crumhorn, and hurdy-gurdy has its own idiosyncrasies.
As an added challenge, the music notation gives little to no clue about instrumentation and usually lacks the indicators, like dynamic and tempo markings, that most contemporary musicians rely on. “That’s one of the big joys of playing this music,” Sheinberg said. “A huge amount is not told to you as a performer.” The players resolve these mysteries by making compositional judgments of their own and improvising.
Most Música Antigua programs focus on secular material, with the exception of the annual Christmas concert, which is thematically sacred. This year’s concert was entitled Marvel Not, Joseph. Here the piece must take a swerve, because though Joseph’s wonderment may have been appeased by the music, I was left marveling — primarily, at the fine line between intrigue and unease when one is immersed in the unfamiliar.
It must be emphasized that the music was well-performed, thoughtfully selected, and truly evocative. Perhaps overly so for me — as the first distant notes emanated from the back of the church to my rigid perch in the front pew, I was surprised by the ominous mood thus created. Wearing robes of deep red, the group made a solemn processional down the aisle, chanting an anonymous 10th-century piece called “Ludicii signum,” which foretells the coming of Christ.
Though this was a recital, not a religious service, it was fraught with enough ceremony and anciently rooted spirituality to place the uninitiated in that uncomfortable position of feeling constantly on the edge of making some misstep — coughing, twitching, or laughing out of nervousness. When compounded by the brain’s paranoia, the act of imagining such scenes can lead to the resignation that such a thing is destined to occur. Fortunately, neither I nor any other audience member lapsed in our task of maintaining solemnity.
After shifting my focus from such concerns to the music, I was rewarded by the richness of the vocal arrangements in pieces like “Ave maris stella,” based on a manuscript preserved in Italy in a Benedictine abbey. As the group moved through the 20 pieces in the first act (some instrumental, some vocal, and a few recitative), it was fascinating to hear the changes of timbre introduced by the numerous instruments arrayed onstage. But upon considering the origins of these instruments and the music composed for them, the weight of history descended with some of the ominousness elicited by the recital’s opening notes.
With their sundry inquisitions and crusades, the pre-Renaissance and Renaissance were periods of intolerance and of struggling to overcome its manifestations. Sacred and secular early-music compositions from that period may be likened to the rare sparks of humanity emanating from the dark tumult of misery. Preserving and sharing these sparks does seem a worthy undertaking, but though the program for Marvel Not, Joseph was celebratory by nature — being devoted to the birth of Christ — even the most beautiful melodies retained a disquieting melancholy, bringing with them echoes of the anguish that has burdened them for centuries.
The same could be said of the occasional narration read at the pulpit by a convincingly severe and ministerial Phil Bock. Some lines were aimed at lightening the mood, like an excerpt from a mid-14th-century English Passion play in which an amazed Joseph exclaims “Her body is great, and she with child!/By me she never was defiled.” The program notes indicate that the theme of cuckoldry was a common source of humor during that period. At the same time, the lines are a reminder that the concept of female purity is not just a quaint vestige of older times, and even if it elicits mirth in some people, it elicits discomfort in others.
Overall, the experience might well have been powerfully uplifting for those with backs more accustomed to the pew and ears more accustomed to the gamba. For me, it provided an occasion to reflect on the power of music to transport us, sometimes into waters of untried depths. If we flounder, it is probably because of our own temperament as much as that of our surroundings.
Música Antigua has an exciting and diverse season planned for 2014, including a March program devoted to Hans Leo Hassler and the German Renaissance. I look forward to attending another of the group’s performances, even if (or maybe, because) this time around I exited the church in search of the sanctuary of the familiar. ◀