From its initial stirrings, the human voice has sought to put the ineffable into words, to shape those words into melodies and to pass those melodies on to posterity. Although the intrinsic value of this transmission has been irrevocably changed through the digitization of musical production, thankfully we still have groups like The Rose Ensemble who are willing to do things the old-fashioned way. And while their voices can also be found haunting the ever-refracting geographies of iTunes, in concert they plot an entirely different cartography, one that we wish to hold dear in that hermetic cave of memory where pores some nameless scribe who, by the candlelight of our awe, records that which moves us most. Now in its sixteenth year of activity, the Saint Paul, Minnesota-based collective of early music purveyors continues its mission of bringing vastly underrepresented repertoires from bygone eras to the ears of the living. To achieve this, members bring a wealth of scholarly legwork to every project. Over 1000 years and 25 languages infuse their nine recordings. The latest, Il Poverello, draws upon Italian Medieval and Renaissance sources in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi and represents their performance at Cornell’s Sage Chapel on a humid Saturday night. If this opening concert is a sign of things to come, then the 2011-12 season promises to be an unforgettable one.
Before the concert even began, one couldn’t help but be impressed by the artfully crafted notes handed to us at the door. Numbering some 16 pages, they were exemplary in every respect and clearly manifested a steadfast dedication to craft, time and care. Parallel texts, composer biographies and a lovely essay that situated the program’s six-century purview in a vast web of miracles and politico-religious intrigue illuminated the life of Saint Francis, a man so enigmatic that only through the ephemeral vagaries of music-making could such richness be revealed. In The Rose Ensemble’s meticulous tenure, Francis’s mysteries were distilled into a continuous circle of appreciation.
The music was as varied as its theme was unified. From enlivening dances and lauda (non-liturgical spiritual songs) to no-less-stirring motets and plainchant, from composers well represented in early music circles (Johannes Ciconia) to those less familiar (Tomaso Graziani), this singular tribute was an unbroken string of hills and valleys. In addition to the seamless blend of voices, we were treated to a bevy of period instruments including the paper-thin accents of the bowed vielle and rebec; the rounded edges of the recorder, shawm, double-flute; the shaded drones of bagpipes and hurdy-gurdy; and selected percussion, making for a collective sound that, not unlike the tongue of Francis himself, was “peaceable, fiery and sharp.” These last brought an audible heartbeat to the instrumental interludes and inspired not a few feet to tap along on the chapel’s stone floor. Guest artist Isacco Colombo provided the evening’s most whimsical moments in Domenico da Piacenza’s 15th-century Ballo Anello, for which Colombo beat a tambor (slung drum) with his right hand while blowing a pipe (fife-like wind instrument with only three holes) in his left, looking for all like the one-man bands of yore. The narrative flow of the concert was further enhanced by readings at selected interstices. These ranged from firsthand accounts of Francis’s physiognomy and legendary stigmata to quieter theological reflections and even an Italian recitation of Dante by Colombo, which was evocative enough to elicit a smattering of applause upon its conclusion.
Among the tapestry of voices were many threads to tug at heart and mind. In particular, sopranos Kathy Lee and Kim Sueoka stood out. Their filigreed loveliness soared above all in the motets’ more knotted passages and achieved a sonorous blend with the tenor lines and the notable anchorage of bass Mark Dietrich. Sueoka was especially arresting in her bird-like rendition of Radiante lumera, an anonymous 14th-century lauda that found her accompanied solely by Ginna Watson on harp. Yet the crowning jewel of the concert, if not the crown itself, was a sequential Stabat Mater sung in modal plainchant and also cradling the harp in its sonic breast. Its soul-piercing emotions leapt with the slow fire of Hildegard von Bingen at her most contemplative.
The blessing and the curse of early music is that we simply don’t know exactly how it sounded at the time of its creation. This sets before any aspiring interpreters the daunting task of reimagining atmospheres and places that exist, for the most part, on faded manuscripts and in forgotten alcoves. As a longtime listener, I have seen many such groups poke their head briefly above the surface of obscurity, only to submerge back into it. Anyone who has heard The Rose Ensemble either live or on disc would surely flock to lift them from the waters should such an unlikely possibility ever present itself. Their deft blend of professionalism (there was not a single musical score in sight) and approachability (the musicians kindly offered demonstrations of their various instruments afterward) sets the bar beyond the reach of most. Not since the groundbreaking endeavors of Ensemble PAN or the Ferrara Ensemble have I been so profoundly affected.
Ensemble founder Jordan Sramek couldn’t help but pay humble deference to the beauties and acoustics of Sage during his thanks to staff and audience before an exultant finish, but even these paled in comparison to the invocations that animated them. In charting the paths that led to The Rose Ensemble’s name, Sramek has described elsewhere its fragrant namesake as, among other things, a mystical symbol denoting “a portal into celestial worlds.” Nothing could be closer to the truth.