Sunday afternoon, January 23, in the A.J.Fletcher Opera Theater, the all-male vocal ensemble Lionheart appeared as part of the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild's Masters Series. While Raleigh dodged the winter weather advisory for the most part this weekend, New York, where Lionheart is based, caught the full brunt of a severe blizzard. Lionheart's bass, Kurt-Owen Richards, was stranded at JFK with all flights cancelled. So we heard a blend of five voices rather than six. Well, what are you going to do — stuff happens — and the show must go on. Actually we barely missed the absent bass. Lawrence Lipnik, countertenor, John Olund and Michael Ryan-Wenger, tenors, and Jeffrey Johnson and Richard Porterfield, baritones, were present and in fine voice. With a few minor adjustments in the program and some shuffling of vocal parts, the program proceeded with the "smoothly blended and impeccably balanced sound," the "spirited programming and exquisite artistry" advertised in their pre-concert promotional flyer.
The program, which is done as a piece without the interruption of applause, began with one of the most haunting American folk spirituals, "Wayfaring Stranger" which served to set a theme and establish a unifying concept for the rest of the concert. It returned for several reprises in different forms, finally appearing as a cleverly conceived canon.
Following the introduction was Gaude Maria, a hymn to Mary from an unknown composer of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in the 12th century, sometimes attributed to Perotin. The austere music of this era can sound rather foreign, even harsh sometimes to our ears, steeped in the romantic tradition. We journeyed forward through the troubadours of the 13th century with works by Adam de la Halle and Philippe de Vitry and well into the 14th and the Ars Nova era with two settings of love's passions by Guillaume de Machaut.
The center and bulk of the program was Marc-André Dalbavie's Chants. The piece employs the poetry of Ezra Pound and a style of composition characterized by spectral and repetitive processes. French composer Dalbavie uses techniques developed with sophisticated computer analysis tools, and he has applied them to create a vocally-arresting piece, rhythmically intricate and harmonically ethereal. It was convincingly and beautifully performed by the five artists, and it held the audience's rapt attention.
After a reprise of "Wayfaring Stranger," we heard Laura Nyro's "And when I die" (Blood, Sweat and Tears), which melded into the Dies Irae (Day of wrath) and Lacrimosa dies illa (That mournful day) from the Mass for the Dead. A planned selection by Cipriano de Rore was replaced by an English Sarum chant followed by a canonical reprise of "Wayfaring Stranger," and the concert ended with "Quam pulchra es" by John Dunstable, the innovative English composer who introduced intervals of the third and sixth into polyphonic music. It was sublime. As an encore, Lionheart did a lovely and lovingly sung rendition of Christina Rossetti's text in Gustav Holst's setting "In the Bleak Mid-winter," a favorite Christmas hymn of many. It was a memorable concert that offered all that the flyer proclaimed: richly blended voices, gorgeous solo work, flawless articulation, and creative programming.
Now I must address my nagging disappointment, and I assure you, I have been wrestling with this quite a bit. First, I was disappointed that the group was one short, but this is a petty complaint and nothing can be done about it anyway. We may complain about the weather, but we can't change it. Thankfully, five did get here and we got the chance to hear some fine singing.
The program was less than an hour in length and somehow, I think, I felt a little shortchanged. While there is no rule or inviolable criterion for concert length, most programs of this nature last an hour and a quarter and up. Of course, there was no intermission and no applause to fluff the apparent length of the program.
The musicians' reliance on those black loose-leaf notebooks stuffed with their music was off-putting. If recital artists can commit their programs to memory, certainly these guys should be able. I could not help thinking what a stunning show this could be without those books and with a little judicious choreography and some minimal props. I hasten to say that I suspect they may have used the sheet music only because of the adjustments in parts required by their absent member.
Finally, it seemed to me that some of the singing for which Lionheart is most noted — the medieval selections — were a bit dry and labored. I am almost tempted to use the "b" word. As an avid admirer of early music, I know it doesn't have to be that way. Some of the most delicious music, music that is deeply resonant in the human psyche, comes from this period. Again, this may have been a consequence of shifting parts to accommodate the missing voice.
I am sure many in the audience did not experience these disappointments, which may have come out of my heightened, possibly unrealistic, expectations or resulted from exhaustion on my part, due to too much running-around all weekend. Or maybe they are real and worthy of consideration. Still, with no hesitation, I for one would go to hear Lionheart again tomorrow if the opportunity presented itself.