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.