Showing posts with label Piffaro. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Piffaro. Show all posts

Monday, March 25, 2019

Piffaro Channels Greek Muse for Dancer's Delight Performance

By Christine Facciolo

The calendar may have read March 17, but nary a note of an Irish gigue was to be heard in the sanctuary of Christ Church in Greenville, Delaware.

Rather, there were plenty of bransles, courantes, bourees galliardes and voltes as Piffaro joined with viol consort Sonnambula to present “Dancers’ Delight,” a celebration of Michael Praetorius’ Terpsichore.

Back, (L-R): Grant Herreid, Priscilla Herreid, Joan Kimball, Greg Ingles
& Fiona Last of Piffaro. Front: Sonnambula’s Jude Ziliak & Toma Iliev.
Photo courtesy of Piffaro.
I was unwittingly — and quite happily — introduced to those sunshine tunes via the 1967 pop hit Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead which incorporated La Bouree (32) as a musical interlude. Of course, there was no Internet back then to help me research what that sparkling tune was. It wasn’t until I got to graduate studies in Musicology that the mystery was solved.

Terpsichore — which takes its name from the Greek muse of dance — is a compendium of more than 300 (312 to be exact) dances collected, arranged and published by German composer Michael Praetorius in 1612. Most of the entrees are French dances — and Praetorius strives to include all varieties — but some come from elsewhere in Europe, for example, England and Spain.

This is not particularly profound music; most Renaissance composers directed their serious energies toward the church. But it is eminently listenable. Crisp, short and punchy, these dances deliver a certain impact with the distinct sounds of the instruments, the varied rhythms and the sheer tunefulness.

The program featured about 30 representative selections, grouped according to the type of dance.

The Terpsichore provides scant information about which instruments should play which parts but the resources available for this concert drew on a wide assortment of strings, harpsichord, percussion and winds, including shawms, recorders, krumhorns, dulcians, sackbuts and bagpipes. The resultant sound was wonderfully colorful and at times, delightfully coarse. The lively spirit of the performances — there was even an exuberant jam session on the Bransle de la Torche — made the entire experience feel authentic.

The musicians were clearly having a ball. Priscilla Herreid was magical as always on recorder and both she and Joan Kimball were soothingly mesmerizing on bagpipes. The Renaissance brass was also superb — you’d swear you were listening to modern valved instruments so robust and secure was their tone.

The concert also introduced to the Wilmington audience Fiona Last, inaugural participant in Piffaro’s Renaissance residency program designed to identify and cultivate professional players who are interested in pursuing period double reeds and brass.

For anyone wanting to experience this rarely performed work again, the program will be repeated when Piffaro guests with Sonnambula, ensemble-in-residence at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, at the Met Cloisters on June 1 at 3:00pm in New York City.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Piffaro's Christmas Renaissance

By Christine Facciolo

Piffaro not only delights audiences by presenting the beauty and glory of Renaissance music, it also engages with historically informed performances that inspire, entertain and educates a loyal following throughout the United States and beyond.

And so it was in December when the ensemble offered a glimpse of how Christmas Eve might have been celebrated in early 16th Century France. The townspeople would have gathered in their modest church with a small choir and a band of instrumentalists to commemorate the most important event on the liturgical calendar. The Mass would feature music composed in the lush, polyphonic style of the late 15th and 16th Century Flemish composers. (In this case, Thomas Crecquillon’s chanson Pis ne me peult venire.s)
This liturgy, though, would not be the straightforward affair it is today. Rather, its movements would rub shoulders with noels and motets. The text would be brought to life with dramatic vignettes 
 a true “multimedia” event.

A most interesting aspect of the program — at least to amateur and professional musicologists — was the revelation of a treasure trove of rare manuscripts housed in the Free Library of Philadelphia. One of these collections is a beautifully illustrated group of French noels known by the uninspiring moniker Lewis E 211. Dating back to 1520, its pages contain beautiful and accurate
 renderings of instruments, including numerous bagpipes, shawms, recorders, pipe and tabor and hurdy-gurdy. They are played by ordinary people and some anthropomorphic animals.

Members of the audience got an introduction to this collection in the pages of the beautiful and informative program compiled by Joan Kimball, Piffaro’s artistic director.

This is music meant to be performed, and who more qualified to do the honors but the knowledgeable virtuosic musicians of Philadelphia’s resident Renaissance Band. Piffaro was joined in its effort by the elegant vocalisms and highly animated performance of the six-voice ensemble Les Canards Chantants. Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell created dream-like vignettes with nothing fussier than their expressions, some costume changes and a few props.

No doubt little of the music on this program sounded like Christmas music to most in attendance, but for those with a sense of musical adventure, it made for a very fine musical experience.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Experiencing Piffaro's Holiday Musical Renaissance

By Christine Facciolo
For those seeking “off-the-beaten-track” holiday music, the Immanuel Church in Wilmington’s Highlands neighborhood was the place to be on Sunday, December 17, as Piffaro, the Renaissance Band, presented Es Ist Ein Ros, a German Renaissance Christmas.

Piffaro’s Christmas program this season followed Welcome the People, the ensemble’s homage to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and featured a host of beloved carols that serve as an integral part of Protestant worship to this day.

If there’s one thing that emerged from this concert, it’s that Martin Luther loved Christmas and he loved music. While the Reformation was wringing out the ritual excesses of the late medieval church, Luther was working to integrate the simple unison plainsong and complex polyphony of the Catholic Church into his new Protestant liturgy. Luther also brought significant change by giving the congregation an active, musical role in church services through the singing of vernacular psalms, hymns and carols.

The beautifully curated program featured the refined Christmas music of Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) as well as compositions by Luther himself, including Veni, Redemptor gentium and Von Himmel hoch, which he wrote for his family’s Christmas Eve devotions.

The concert also included works by among others, Johann Rosenmuller, Johann Walter, Johann Eccard, Hans Leo Hassler, Christoph Bernhard, Leon Paminger and Adam Gumpelzhaimer, all grappling with different ways of incorporating Italian musical forms into a Protestant liturgical design.

There was sheer pleasure in the graceful melodies and interesting harmonies. The alternation of Latin and German texts and sophisticated and common musical forms engaged listeners on a variety of levels.

The performance was everything you would expect from the musicians of one of the world’s greatest interpreters of Renaissance music. Intonation was flawless, the blend superb and the phrasing eminently convincing.

Guest soloist Jessica Beebe contributed a soprano that was tonally pure throughout its range, applying it with the assurance of an artist fully cognizant of the demands of the music.


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Piffaro Serves Up a "Delight" for Audiences

By Christine Facciolo
Music about animals took center stage on Sunday when Piffaro brought “A Mummers’ Delight: A Renaissance Menagerie” to The Episcopal Church of Saints Andrew and Matthew in Wilmington.

The Philadelphia-based early music ensemble is in the midst of celebrating its 30th anniversary season, and one of the ways it’s marking that milestone is by welcoming back guest artists from years past.

This concert featured performers Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell, artistic directors of Washington, DC’s award-winning Happenstance Theater.

Piffaro deployed its full panoply of instruments while Jaster and Mendell clowned and mimed their way through this rather silly — but highly entertaining — afternoon.

The program featured seven vignettes combining music and action: “The Hunter and the Hunted,” “The Crocodile,” “The Flea and Love,” “A Veritable Menagerie!” “The Bear,” “Winged Creatures,” “The Ape” and “The Horse into Battle.”

Animals and animal sounds were extremely popular in the 16th Century. But animals make for dubious musicians. Only birds can actually sing; the rest make a buzzing, neighing, roaring racket. About the only thing music can do is capture the way the beast sounds or moves — which the members of Piffaro finessed quite nicely.

Lively instrumental work depicted the darting motion of the butterfly in Pallavicino’s Una farfalla as well as the hopping motion of the flea in Bassano’s Note felice.

Descending passages in Vecchi’s Il cocodrillo geme mimicked the slithering movements of the crocodile. Appropriately enough, this set also introduced the flattened s-shaped instrument called the lizard or lyserden, a tenor cornett with a foggy yet pleasing sound.

Similarly, the contrasting tempos of The Apes dance at the Temple characterized the slow, often manic movements of the rustic animal.

Sometimes the effect is downright silly as in Banchieri’s Contrapunto bestiale, in which a dog, a cat, an owl and a cuckoo battled for attention with their various calls. The cuckoo won out, becoming the star of the final selection in A Veritable Menagerie!

It could also be impressive and clever like the realistic imitation of bird sounds in Gombert’s Le chant des oyseaux, one of the pieces that made onomatopoeic compositions popular all across Europe.

Complementing the musical merriment was the kinetic energy and playful interaction of Mandell and Jaster. Mandell served as the maestro introducing each segment with a passage from literature.

Jaster is a master mime, all-around clown and brilliant performer. Playing “the fool” to partner Mandell’s emcee, he entered with a “Do Not Feed” sign draping his derriere. Whether playing a dead goose, a chicken laying an egg, a hopping flea, taking a swipe at Mandell as a hissing cat or a cuckoo clock, he had the audience in stitches. But there was a soft side to him as well as when he portrayed the sad swan that dies singing or the dancing bear, forced to entertain the crowd.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

A Merry Musical Start to the Holidays from a Trio of Artists

By Christine Facciolo

The Liturgy of the Hours, the recitation of certain prayers at fixed times of the day, is one of the oldest forms of Christian spirituality. Vespers the most ancient of these “offices” set a liturgy of prayer and music against the shadow of sunset.

In the 17th Century, Christmas vespers was a festive affair, featuring popular hymns, large groups of singers and instrumentalists in the cathedral.

The groups in rehearsal before the December 20 performance at Wilmington's SsAM.
The concert recreated Christmas vespers as it might have sounded under the direction of Lutheran composer and organist Michael Praetorius in 17th Century Germany. The performance featured the 13 voices of Choral Arts Philadelphia and replicas of Renaissance instruments — including dulcians, theorbos, sackbuts, recorders, shawm and violone — provided by Piffaro and Tempesta di Mare. The concert marked the first collaboration among the three performing organizations.

Christmas in Germany: Dresden Vespers 1619 delivered musical splendor in the old and lush tradition. Featuring music by Praetorius, Heinrich Schutz and Samuel Scheidt — three prominent composers of the early 17th Century Dresden court — the program followed the traditional order of the Vespers service, taking the audience through the expectations, solemn reflections and joys of the Advent season.

The beauty of this program lay in the contrast between the simple and the complex. The simple element is the Lutheran hymn tunes that underlie all this music. Choral Arts Philadelphia sang a few hymns in the traditional Lutheran setting. Most of the program, though, featured the complex element: These tunes woven into intricate counterpoint and often decorated with breathtaking ornamentation.

Praetorius was the featured composer on the program. His music straddles an interesting period of old-fashioned Renaissance music and new-fashion Baroque. Because of his position in Ecclesiastical circles — a committed Christian who regretted not taking Holy Orders — he did not write opera or concertos. Yet, he did learn a great deal from the new Italian style and his music is replete with virtuoso singing, echo effects and the use of instruments.

The audience heard his unique settings of such familiar tunes as Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme as well as his less familiar Magnificat super Ut re mi fa sol la, based on the simple melodic motif of six ascending notes of the scale. The offerings from the other composers feature antiphonal writing. Scheidt’s version of Nun komm der Heiden Heiland and Duo Seraphim and Schutz’ setting of Psalm 128 show the influences of the Venetian polychoral tradition.

This performance revealed the splendor and ethereal beauty of the Vespers, as well as the magic and excitement of bringing a reconstructed chapter of music history to life.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Celebrating 30 Years of Renaissance Music with Its "Pied Pipers"

Piffaro, The Renaissance Band. Photo by Sharon Torello.
By Christine Facciolo

Devotees of Renaissance music packed the chapel at Christ Church in Greenville Sunday to celebrate the opening of Piffaro’s 30th Anniversary Season, welcome back old friends and memorialize the passing of another.

The internationally acclaimed “Pied Pipers of Early Music” broke out shawms, dulcians, sackbuts, recorders, krumhorns, bagpipes, lutes, guitars, harps and a variety of percussion for a lively and diverse retrospective of their “greatest hits” from one of music’s most cosmopolitan and vibrant periods. (Fans were also invited to curate the program by voting at the ensemble’s website,

Repertoire spanned 15th Century motets by the Low Countries’ Heinrich Isaac to a chaconne by 17th Century Spaniard Juan Aranes. Other composers featured on the program were Ludwig Senfl, Thomas Weelkes, Nicolas Gombert, Jakob Arcadelt as well as the ubiquitous Anonymous.

The Renaissance set the stage for much of what lay ahead in Western music. Increasingly freed from medieval constraints, music became a vehicle for personal expression and composers found ways to make their music expressive of the texts they were setting.

“La Guerra” by Mateo Flecha is a striking example. Here life’s struggles cast in terms of war and victory are conveyed through constantly changing meters, textures and tonality, all of which were executed to perfection.

Throughout the Renaissance, dance music flowered and thrived and was composed — or more likely improvised — by many people. The Suite of Dances by Tylman Susato is a fine representative of some of the outstanding dance music of the late Renaissance. Piffaro’s joyous playing had toes tapping and heads bobbing to the infectious rhythms, making for a fitting close to the two-hour program.

There were more subdued moments as well, such as harpist Christa Patton and lutist Grant Herreid duetted on the poignant La Rossignol, an Elizabethan piece originally written for two guitars. Patton recalled that the piece was used in the 1970s PBS special on Elizabeth I during the scene when the monarch and her fiancé were to meet in secret in a church to exchange vows but somehow missed each other.

A touch of sadness pervaded the concert as the ensemble remembered their late colleague Tom Zajac who passed away on August 31. The recorders captured the meditative quality of Nicolas Gombert’s Musae jovis to profound effect, balancing shades of mourning with moments of light and serenity. Gombert wrote the majestic requiem as a lament on the death of his teacher, polyphonic master Josquin des Prez.

The concert was also a reunion of sorts, as former ensemble members Adam and Rotem Gilbert (1989-2007), Eric Anderson (1989-1995) and George Hoyt (1996-1999) returned to join the milestone celebration.