The Sacramento Choral Calendar
UC Davis Early and Modern Ensemble
Miserere - March 17, 2017
by Dick Frantzreb
It was a little strange to take my seat for a concert by the Early Music Ensemble, a group whose work I’ve come to appreciate and look forward to for the past couple of years, and then open my program and see it announced as the “UC Davis Early and Modern Ensemble.” I glanced at the program and saw that all the composers on tonight’s program were from the 16th and 17th centuries. Then I recalled that the next performance by this group is titled “Bach to Bernstein.” Clearly, Director Matilda Hofman is positioning for another creative left-turn. I’ve seen her take them before, and the results are always fascinating and ultimately enjoyable for the open-minded audience.
Waiting for the performance to begin, I took a few minutes to appreciate the Recital Hall in the Ann E. Pitzer Center, only open since last September. The 400-seat hall was about 1/3 filled on this occasion, and all those people were enjoying the comfortable seating in what is from all appearances a state-of-the-art facility for musical performances.
A few minutes after the scheduled start time of the concert, the 22 singers entered, followed by Director Hofman. The mixed chorus stood in 2 rows — by voice part, I believe — with individuals widely spaced, thanks to the large stage area. Hofman greeted the audience, jokingly apologizing for the “dark, miserable” music they were about to perform. Reflecting the concert’s title of “Miserere,” the first few pieces were about death and grief, capped with a requiem mass. In these first (and later) words to the audience, Hofman gave brief background on the music and its historical period, amplifying a bit the commentary on the last page of the concert program.
Click here to open the concert program in a new window.
Hofman described the first 3 pieces as an “English triptych.” (This is a term I learned fairly recently. It is borrowed from the visual art world and refers to 3 works presented side-by-side and reflecting different expositions of a similar theme.) What related these pieces was their apparent preoccupation with death. The first piece, Thomas Morley’s “Fyre, Fyre,” was a madrigal that humorously presented a metaphor of “burning to death” (from love, I presume). The second, Weelkes’ “Death Hath Deprived Me” mourned the passing of his friend, Thomas Morley. And the third, Purcell’s “Hear My Prayer” was a dramatic setting of text from Psalm 102 “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my crying come unto thee.” In the absence of applause, it took only 8 or 9 minutes to perform all three.
As soon as the singing began for the Morley piece, I was struck with the quality of the sound produced by this group. “Early Music Ensemble” is a class offered by the UC Davis Music Department, but one must audition to be accepted, and my sense was that this was a select group of singers in more ways than one. For one thing all ages were represented, and it seemed that few of them could be students, at least undergraduate students. Also, I recognized a couple of “ringers” in the group: people I know to be professional or at least semi-professional singers — and there were probably others. It was no surprise: where else would they get the opportunity to perform this kind of music and to a high standard of excellence? With many talented singers, of course they produced an excellent blend, but the excellent acoustics of the Recital Hall were no doubt a help, too, making it especially easy to hear one another.
The Morley madrigal was ostensibly humorous but I couldn’t make out the words to appreciate the humor. Since it was in English, perhaps that’s why the text was left out of the program, while the Latin (with translation) of the Victoria mass was included. But in the end the words didn’t matter: the energy of the song conveyed the humor. And Hofman’s quick tempo, along with the crisp singing and overall style of the song made for enjoyable listening.
The Weelkes piece couldn’t have presented more of a contrast. Hofman had described it earlier as a piece with a great dramatic and vocal range. It dripped with melancholy from the start, and one could see the drama in her directing as much as from the singing of the ensemble.
The program notes on the Purcell piece, a brief fragment of a longer piece that was never completed, speak of “the intensity of its highly chromatic setting,” and a constant crescendo built “by the gradual adding of voices.” With 8 parts singing contrapuntally, I couldn’t discern the brief text noted above during the 3-minute performance of this piece. Still, it’s plaintive quality was unmistakable, as was its “emotional crescendo.” In my notes I wrote “This music has both intellectual and visceral appeal.”
I would never agree that these first 3 pieces were “dark, miserable” music. Still, Hofman offered us a “palate cleanser” not in the printed program, a setting of the Ave Maria by Hector Villa-Lobos. I believe I heard her say that it was published in 1918, but a bit of Internet research revealed the date as 1938. Indeed, it was a refreshingly different style of music and a relief from melancholy.
The Victoria requiem mass (see the program for the full Latin title) was the heart of this brief, 50-minute concert. At that, we weren’t given all of what Hofman described as Victoria’s “greatest work,” which, she said, was “full of surprises” for her and her singers as they learned it.
The piece began with a beautiful sweep of interplay among the 6 voice parts. As I was drawn into the intricacies and emotions of the piece, I stopped taking notes, and soaked in what I was hearing. At one point I asked myself: “Is appreciation for this music an acquired taste? Surely there’s something in our DNA that makes us respond to this kind of music. Or maybe it’s that this music goes beyond DNA, putting us in touch with the spiritual.” Scanning the attentive, expressive faces of the singers, it seemed to me that they were indeed in touch with the “soul” of this piece. When a smaller ensemble of 7 performed the “Offertorium” movement, I noticed several members of the main group listening with eyes closed.
Above all, Victoria’s requiem mass was performed with great artistry, full of nuance. In introducing the piece, Hofman had this comment about their work with this music: “It was a wonderful journey for us; hopefully it will be for you, too.” Actually, when I reflected on this later, it made me feel a little sad. Much as I enjoyed the performance, I came to it as a first-time listener. I could appreciate only a small fraction of what is to be understood and felt in it — compared to the singers who spent the last 2+ months working on it, let alone the director who had made a formal study of this piece, including its construction and its historical and musical contexts. But that was just a passing thought. What has stayed with me is that this brief, 50-minute concert has left me feeling enriched and looking forward to whatever will be next from this fine ensemble.