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Duke University's Collegium Musicum has been on a roll this season. Under the leadership of Tom Moore, the small vocal ensemble has continued to explore the byways of cultural history, offering last fall a remarkable program of sacred music by Salamone Rossi and, for its spring concert, an evening of English renaissance music that brought considerable joy to its audience. The concert was presented in the sanctuary of Durham’s First Presbyterian Church, the resonance of which resembles that of certain English cathedrals – it's certainly more flattering for singing and slow musical works than for speech!
The program encompassed a major work by a minor composer – Thomas Appleby's Mass for a mene – and some relatively minor works by a major composer – four sacred pieces, in Latin, by William Byrd. There was some remarkable craft in pure programming at work here, inasmuch as Byrd succeeded Appleby as choirmaster of Lincoln Cathedral in 1563.
Appleby’s music is little known, in part, because there is so little of it. Moore explained that there are basically two extant works – and that the Mass performed on this occasion, recently published, was likely receiving its American premiere – which means that the NC Symphony wasn't the only presenter offering "new" works on this date! Indeed, new music is as new music does, and this Appleby work does plenty, offering a remarkable Kyrie in which plainchant and polyphony alternate in most ingenious ways. The piece was clearly written for liturgical use, but its five parts (the Kyrie is followed by four standard texts – Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei) worked well in a stand-alone concert setting, and the eight vocalists* of the Collegium sang with enthusiasm and evident precision. (That the piece was recently published does not mean it was not known: New Grove  describes it, noting that it was intended for four men's voices.)
Byrd's music is more complex, more demanding – of singers and listeners, too – and the sonority produced by the singers, augmented from time to time by the director himself, was impressive in all four numbers: "Siderum rector" (5vv), "O lux, beata Trinitas" (6vv), "Laudate Pueri, Dominum" (6vv), and "Tribue Domine" (6vv), the latter a substantial work in three parts. Texts and translations were provided, although the diction was so good the Latin words were hardly needed. There have been many concerts of early music in the Triangle over the years, but few programs have elicited as much heartfelt applause as this one. Perhaps that's because there seem to be fewer and fewer such concerts, particularly since the demise of Fortuna, our "civilian" early music group. That's all the more reason to celebrate and support Duke's Collegium Musicum!
Between the two a cappella vocal groups there were performances of nine short pieces for mixed musical forces involving, variously, five recorders, four viols, a lute, and some additional singers**, all directed by Karen Cook. These complemented the sacred fare and cast additional light on the music of the period. The composers included Alfonso Ferrabosco, Richard Nicholson, Matthew Locke, Daniel Bachelor, Robert Johnson, Henry Stoning, John Dowland, Thomas Weelkes, and that most ubiquitous and inventive creator, Anonymous. The pieces demonstrated the inventive approaches to music that were taking place outside the church. A lovely reading of Dowland's "Pavane Lachrymae," played by lutenist John Orluk, was very warmly applauded. Most surprising were three sacred vocal works (by Nicholson, Dowland, and Weelkes), all in the vernacular (English), addressing love, life, and the delights of tobacco(!). The performances were engaging in every respect and admirably complemented the more serious portions of the program.
*The eight singers were Samantha Bowen, Melanie Sereny, Giselle Lopez, Kerry McCarthy, Neil Jackson, Jacob Vaccaro, John Orluk, and Michael Trinastic. Surely director Moore would have welcomed more participants, but as it happened these were able and strong singers, and the results were impressive as vocal chamber music in the best sense of the term, so Moore & Co. made a virtue of necessity on this occasion.
**The viols were played by Sarah Griffin, Karen Cook, Dan Ruccia, and Simon Zaleski. John Orluk played lute. The recorder players were Karen Cook, Sarah Griffin, Neil Jackson, Jacqueline Waeber, and Simon Zaleski. The vocalists in the secular pieces were Stephanie Westen, Roman Testroet, Cook, and Jackson.