Asheville’s Echo Early Music Festival, now in its third year, is off and running. Festival Director Eric Scheider has pulled together for the first weekend a series of singularly interesting chamber music concerts, three of them featuring harps. Capping these events at the end of the weekend was the program “In the Chamber of the Harpers: Late Medieval Music from the Iberian Peninsula” at Jubilee! Community performed by the medieval specialists of ensemble Trefoil. Here was rich ground if there ever was such to be plumbed — the rousing music of the venerated pilgrimage road to Santiago, love songs written from the feminine perspective reflective of Arabic influence, mass excerpts from the time of the Great Schism, laments, and some of the most rhythmically complex instrumental and vocal music ever written before the 20th century, written ca.1375-1420 in a mannered style also known as ars subtilior. It is certainly rare that one hears a live performance of the latter pieces; their very difficulty make them almost impossible to pull off with any sort of musicality, and yet this trio did that, and more.
Countertenors Drew Minter and Mark Rimple, and soprano Marcia Young comprise the ensemble founded in 2000. They also play medieval lap harps and Rimple plays lute, actually one built by Lawrence K. Brown of Asheville. Minter, known also as a baroque singer and acclaimed opera director, is on the faculty of Vassar College. Rimple is known for his singing, lute playing, and compositions; his interests in music theory and the history of music notation are evident as he explains to audiences the idiosyncrasies of the appearance of the music they’re playing. He is an associate professor of Music Theory and Composition at West Chester University. Young sings regularly with other early music groups and has appeared at many early music festivals. She is Director of Performance Studies at Manhattan’s Stern College, Yeshiva University.
The program began with 2 of 6 extant cantigas de amigo of Martin Codax (fl. 1240-1270) — “Ondas do mare de Vigo” and “Mina yrmana fremosa.” These were written as lyrical monophonic songs, here accompanied rather freely with strummed figurations and melodic echoes on lute and harp. As they were love songs of yearnings, I wished to follow their texts; unfortunately all texts were inadvertently omitted from the program notes, a serious disappointment.
The next group consisted of songs that “employed the troubadour’s art to moral ends.” “Gran dereit,” one of the Cantigas de Santa Maria from the court of Alfonso X, El Sabio (1221-1284) told the story of a pious monk who had faithfully chanted five Marian songs and was rewarded by the appearance of five roses emanating from his mouth after death. The performance was intriguing due to its rich accompaniment, both instrumental (harp) and with sung drones, and a degree of miming to convey the song’s meaning. The “Salve regina glorie” from the 13th century Las Huelgas Codex, compiled for the nuns of Las Huelgas convent in Burgos, was a beautifully sung duet by Rimple and Young of two-part French polyphony of increased rhythmic intricacy. The music here and throughout the rest of the program consisted of music whose phrases began and ended with the perfect consonances of fifth, unison and octave, all beautifully in tune.
Two pilgrim songs from the Compostela pilgrimage were the virelai “Mariam Matrem Virginem” featuring a florid upper voice against harp and lute, and the Catalan ballada “Los set gotxs recomptarem” performed instrumentally due to its lost text. Following these were two excerpts from an anonymous mid-14th century Mass of Barcelona. Its “Kyrie” featured a florid, highly melismatic style with amusing hockets (division of a vocal line into bits parceled out to one or more other parts). The lengthy “Sanctus sanctus pater/Sanctus miro gaudio/Sanctus” was troped with two independent texts, under laid in the music in such a way that each could be clearly heard.
We heard two courtly laments in French: “Helas pitie” by Trebor (fl. 1380-1400) and “Fuions de ci” by Jacquemin de Senleches (fl. 1382-1383), a lament on the death of Eleanor of Castille in whose “chamber of the harpers” many musicians had performed. Although the mood of this music wasn’t as pointedly sorrowful as it would become in the music of later generations, Minter is such an expressive singer that one was moved nonetheless.
The program concluded with some of the afternoon’s most challenging music: two more by Senleches — “En attendant esperance” sung by Young, and” La Harpe de Melodie,” a canonic chasse and notational tour de force, as in one source the musical staves take the form of harp strings. “Elas mon cuer” from the Faenza Codex (ca. 1400) took the form of a duet showcasing Rimple’s exquisite lute playing. The final “Se Gallas” by Johannes Cuvelier (fl. 1372-1387) was a splendid display of ear-boggling rhythmic intricacies and ensemble finesse. As if to top this feat, they performed as an encore a “Gloria” (with more of those funny hockets) from memory. Bravi tutti!