UC Davis Early Music Ensemble
Concert - November 15, 2014
by Dick Frantzreb
This concert was my first experience of the UC Davis Early Music Ensemble. The concert, which only lasted 40 minutes, implemented an interesting idea: to present just Sanctus or Agnus Dei movements from the masses of 7 different composers who wrote during the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. (Click here to open the program in a new window.)
The Episcopal Church of St. Martin in Davis is the "home" of this ensemble, having been the location of all their concerts for the past 3 years that I've been aware of their work. And what a home it is: tranquil, intimate, resonant — perfect for an a cappella concert.
The 17 singers were apparently a mix of students and non-students. Small as the group was, I felt that they produced a unified sound, with no dominant voices. No doubt this came from being particularly sensitive to each other's singing. Of course, there were solo sections and several trios. I felt that each soloist had a pleasant, eminently listenable tone. The trio in the de Morales selection was exquisite, and I particularly appreciated the lovely tone of the first soprano.
At least for the first 3 composers, I'm not experienced or knowledgeable enough to distinguish compositional differences among them. (And I fear that was the whole point of this concert.) I imagine that's one of the joys of singing this kind of music: one becomes familiar enough with it to perceive the subtleties in the composer's art. But even the casual, unlearned, and unanalytic listener can get great pleasure from the overall effect of this music.
The differences in the second half of the concert were more pronounced, though it's hard to articulate them. For example, the selections from the de Victoria mass stood out to me as distinct in style from all that had gone before. It seemed to me that the singers liked this piece best, putting a little more finesse into the phrasing. I also appreciated the nimble voices in the trio in this piece. Then the des Prez mass offered another noticeably different sound.
I was sad to see such a small audience — only about 50 in attendance — for such a fine performance. There are not many opportunities to hear a full concert — intelligently and artistically performed -- of this timeless, soul-nourishing music. I was glad to have been there, and I hope I won't miss any more performances of this ensemble.