The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Renaissance Choir Sacramento
O Magnum Mysterium: An Ancient Spanish Christmas - December 17, 2015
by Griffin Toffler
There are not a lot of choral groups that devote themselves exclusively to Renaissance music and so we are fortunate that Sacramento hosts a Renaissance choir directed by the scholarly Dr. Lee Lovallo. Nurturing Renaissance music for about four years, the Renaissance Choir Sacramento continues to evolve in its scope and expertise with each new concert. In this particular performance, the group did not limit itself to vocal music. Inserted between the sections of "Misa O magnum mysterium," by Tomás Luis de Victoria, we heard instrumental works featuring the vihuela (a Renaissance predecessor to the Baroque guitar), the lap harp and the pipe organ. Dr. Lovallo explained that masses of that time were not intended to be performed as one continuous unit, but were broken up by the different functions of the religious service. The instrumental interludes in between sections of Victoria's mass provided natural interludes, and it all fit together well.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
Although the subtitle to this concert implies that the music is completely Spanish, one reads deeper into the program that Catalan music is distinct from Spanish. The program opened with four anonymous 16th-century Catalan works called villancicos, which are a type of song that was sung on informal occasions, such as our Christmas carols. The fourth of these villancicos was titled "Riu, riu, chiu," imitating the sounds of kingfishers. The first three villancicos were more serene, so this work provided contrast with its bounce and humorous nature.
The tones of the singers' voices were true to the type of singing required for the era. The solos, if not always expertly done, were pleasant and loyal to the nature of the music. Also, the harmonies rang pure, without the inherent beats of later music dominated by equal temperament. A Renaissance musician who does not know the difference between the pure sound of just intonation and the modern predominance of equal temperament cannot do justice to early music. Choral groups that rehearse by playing their parts on the piano are likely to fall upon the tuning used during the Renaissance period by accident rather than on purpose. I've never discussed this with Dr. Lovallo, so I am not sure which of the former schools of practice he belongs to. However, based on the purely intoned harmonies that prevailed throughout the concert, I am led to believe that these harmonies were deliberately delivered in just ratios.
The choir's interpretation of Tomás Luis de Victoria's work had the effect of bathing the whole cathedral and its inhabitants with sublime harmony. Even the lines of clearly stated counterpoint seemed to exist simply to lead the listener to the next glorious chord. In fact, words like "listening," "performance" and "audience" seem superfluous and lacking of usefulness in describing the effect the music had. I felt soothed and whole as I participated in the experience of the concert, as if I was surreptitiously gaining a glimpse into heaven itself. In the end, having been bathed in pure ethereal harmonies and accordingly promised that somewhere there truly is a heaven, I went home with the hopes of finding such an experience again in the not too distant future. Now let's see, when is the next concert?
Griffin Toffler attended Longy School of Music and Morehead University as a music major for 3 years. Although she went on to be successful in her field after obtaining an MA in Clinical Psychology at John F. Kennedy University, she has often thought of returning to college to complete her degree in music education. She is currently taking conducting classes at CSU Stanislaus. Her first voice teacher, Olga Averino, was a major influence in Griffin's life. Griffin hopes to, in some small way, pass on to others some of the wisdom she learned from Madame Averino. Her website is www.griffintoffler.com.