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“Dante’s Mu­si­cal Jour­ney”

San Miguel Chapel, Nov. 19

Since the no­tated reper­toire of me­dieval mu­sic tends to­ward short­ish pieces, at least apart from plain­chant, it is hard to as­sem­ble it into ef­fec­tive full-length con­cert pro­grams. But the per­for­mance at San Miguel Chapel on Nov. 19 showed that it can be done, and mas­ter­fully.

Singer Drew Minter and multi-in­stru­men­tal­ists Mark Rim­ple and Mary Springfels have worked to­gether in var­i­ous com­bi­na­tions over many years, de­vel­op­ing a com­fort level that let them con­vey their pieces with tech­ni­cal flair, ensem­ble se­cu­rity, and im­pro­visatory free­dom. Their con­cert, ti­tled “Dante’s Mu­si­cal Jour­ney,” capped off a four-day Dante sym­po­sium or­ga­nized by the Re­ne­san In­sti­tute, and the well-pre­pared par­tic­i­pants in that “life­long-learn­ing” event turned out in force, ef­fec­tively fill­ing what is billed as the old­est church in the United States. The pro­gram un­rolled in a tri­par­tite struc­ture; that would have pleased me­dieval folks, who de­lighted in any­thing that sug­gested the Trin­ity. Here, the sec­tions re­lated to the three books of Dante’s Com­me­dia, each piece ref­er­enc­ing char­ac­ters or spe­cific ideas found re­spec­tively in the In­ferno, Pur­ga­to­rio, and Par­adiso. For ex­am­ple, the Lamento da Tris­tano, an anony­mous in­stru­men­tal num­ber from a Tus­can man­u­script in­scribed in about 1400, memo­ri­al­izes the char­ac­ter Tris­tan, whom Dante en­coun­ters in the sec­ond cir­cle of Hell, the last stop of those who erred through lust­ful­ness. One could hardly go wrong with such a pro­gram opener; the haunt­ing melody of the Lamento is one of the most beau­ti­ful in all of mu­sic. Stately melan­choly in­fused it here, with Springfels play­ing vielle (a bowed string in­stru­ment), Rim­ple play­ing git­tern (else­where he dou­bled on citole, both be­ing plucked proto-gui­tars), and Minter adding the mourn­ful pulse of a deep frame drum.

Al­though quite a lot can be de­ter­mined about the per­for­mance prac­tice of me­dieval mu­sic, a great deal re­mains spec­u­la­tive. That places the re­spon­si­bil­ity for the style of in­ter­pre­ta­tions heav­ily on the shoul­ders of the per­form­ers. Th­ese three have earned their in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tions by com­bin­ing schol­ar­ship with prac­ti­cal ex­per­i­men­ta­tion to es­tab­lish ac­cu­rate mu­si­cal texts (no small chal­lenge, given how greatly me­dieval no­ta­tional sys­tems dif­fered from our own) and ren­der them in a way that brings the mu­sic alive. This in­volved var­i­ous ap­proaches in the course of the evening. Minter, for ex­am­ple, pos­sesses a rich, vi­brant, low-ly­ing coun­tertenor, but he also sang in bari­tone reg­is­ter when that seemed best for a piece. Though never drawn to over­act­ing, he con­veyed the more text-ori­ented pieces with de­pic­tive speci­ficity. His telling of a chival­ric tale by the 12th-cen­tury trou­ba­dour Bertran de Born (a res­i­dent of the eighth cir­cle of Hell) some­times hov­ered be­tween singing and speak­ing, and sim­i­lar Sprech­stimme in­formed his lyri­cal recita­tion of a pas­sage from the Pur­ga­to­rio.

Par­tic­u­larly wel­come were rarely en­coun­tered ex­am­ples of the high­art style of 14th-cen­tury Italy, in­clud­ing Ja­copo da Bologna’s madrigal “Aquil’al­tera” and a Sanc­tus by Lorenzo da Firenze. Minter ren­dered their spec­tac­u­larly florid vo­cal lines with grace and pre­ci­sion — truly a bel canto of the Mid­dle Ages. The con­tri­bu­tions from bowed and plucked strings were not less el­e­gant. A par­tic­u­larly ap­pre­ci­ated de­tail was how the play­ers segued seam­lessly from tun­ing their in­stru­ments into the pieces via im­pro­vised pre­ludes, a prac­tice that is well doc­u­mented but that few per­form­ers bother to honor. Recitals of me­dieval mu­sic can some­times be a penance to en­dure, but this one ush­ered lis­ten­ers di­rectly to Par­adiso. — James M. Keller

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