Saturday, December 7, 2013

Early Music Now: An Expressive Medieval Christmas with The Waverly Consort

Christmas liturgy in Catholic churches across medieval Europe made room for pageant, improvisation, instrumental ensembles and free-ranging appropriation from the canon of church music and texts.

The Waverly Consort expanded on that idea in assembling its long-standing The Christmas Story, As Told in the Music of the Middle Ages, which the ensemble of 15 performed Saturday on the Early Music Now series.

Waverly music director Michael Jaffee and researchers Kay Jaffee and Kenneth C. Ritchie did not seek to recreate a Christmas drama/liturgy as it might have been performed at a particular church in a particular time. They attached music from the 10th through the 15th centuries to old liturgical texts relating the prophecies, the Nativity, the visit of the Magi, the slaughter of the innocents and a redemptive epilog.

The story connected the disparate styles, ranging from several varieties of free chant to organum to  rhythmic modal music to full-blown, measured polyphony. So the Waverlies gave us not only a musical Christmas story, but also a survey of musical developments in Western Europe over five centuries. They even got a secular dance into the mix, a lively 6/8 Istampita, jangling with cymbals and Michael Jaffee's guitar-like citole and graced with reedy wailing from Daniel Stillman's shawm. The wild dance illustrated the debauchery of Herod's court and of course brought Salome to mind.

We don't usually think of medieval music, especially late polyphony with its complex numerical schemes, as being emotionally expressive in the modern sense. We associate expression with the throb of dissonance, which was exceedingly rare in Friday's music and as a common notion dates to about 1600.

But the consort's expert singers and players found ways to make this music embody the words in meaningful ways. The Istampita is one example. The martial fanfares on slide trumpet and field drum heralded and punctuated the exchanges between Herod and his royal armorer, which Peter Stewart and David Ripley chanted with brutal weight and force. That contrasted sharply with the sweet legato singing of the Magi -- Gregory Purnhagen, Michael Steinberger and John Shankweiler -- and the ethereal voices of Angels Hai-Ting Chinn and Michele Eaton. Countertenor Bruce Rameker was the most ethereal of all, as the Archangel of the Annunciation. He sang through a halo of randomly ringing suspended handbells, to otherworldly effect in the lively acoustic of the Chapel of the St. Joseph Center, the ideal setting for this program.

Mezzo Hai-Ting Chinn sang most expressively of all in the lament of Rachel, inconsolable after Herod's men slaughter her own two innocents. She bent tones and couched Rachel's grief in explosive dynamics and otherwise placed the plainest of plain chant somewhere between Tosca and The Blues.

I didn't know chant could sound like that, but it makes perfect sense that a singer at Fleury in the 12th century could get carried away by the feeling packed into this powerful text.

I like the Waverly approach to authenticity, the assembling from here and there, the ear for dramatic impulse, the trust in imagination and instinct rooted in research. Scholarship alone isn't enough. You have to know how to put on a show.

This Early Music Now program will be repeated at 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8, again at St. Joseph's Center Chapel, 1515 S. Layton Blvd. Saturday's program sold out, but some seats remain for the Sunday performance. They will go on sale at the door only at 2 p.m.

More striniwrites Christmas reviews: MSO Holiday Pops, Rep's A Christmas Carol.