The first part of Christopher Preston Thompson's concert at the Music House requires a certain suspension of belief. There are harps and vielles that survive from the Middle Ages; there is, as well, written music, although much of it is sketchier than the roughest present-day fake book. Modern-day performances of Medieval music seem to me to be mostly judged on the most subjective level: Did I like it? When I entered the music room before the concert, Thompson (Medieval harp) and his co-performer Niccolo Seligmann (vielle) were tuning; then Seligmann asked Thompson, "Do you wanna jam?" and their jamming was just as fine as the Medieval selections on the program.
Selections in the first part of the concert included works of the trouveres of langue d'oïl, the trobadors of lo País d'Òc, and what some musicologists refer to as the first song cycle, the Cantigas de Amigo by Martim Codax, a Galician joglar. Thompson sang in a light tenor voice and accompanied himself on a Medieval harp along with the accompaniment of Seligmann playing the vielle. I am not competent to say they were good, but the music was very enjoyable.
This was followed by a stylish and delicate performance of Jean-Philippe Rameau's cantata L'Impatience, for voice and continuo of viola da gamba (Seligmann) and harpsichord (John O'Brien). Thompson's liquid and transparent voice is perfect for this type of music, with its complicated melody and ornamented phrases. Thompson's diction is as clear as a bell, and he easily distinguishes between trills and vibrato. Seligmann's seven-string French-style gamba is a beautiful instrument; he plays with utmost precision, as demanded by the intricate parts that require both bass as part of the continuo and an elaborate obbligato against the vocal line. O'Brien, master accompanist as usual, brings a relaxed but careful style whenever he touches a keyboard, in this case his French double by Richard Kingston.
After intermission the ensemble offered a delightful series of songs: Haydn's "She Never Told Her Love" and "In Thee I Bear So Dear A Part" (H. 26a no 34 and no 33), Beethoven's "Bußlied" (from Gellert Lieder, Op. 48, no 6), and Mozart's "Oiseaux, si tous les ans" and "Dans un Bois solitaire" (K. 307 and 308). These were all food for the gods and held me spellbound.
Thompson was joined on the stage by Mollye Otis who, in addition to teaching singing in the BFA theatre program at ECU, is a first rate accompanist. Thompson flipped a figurative switch and sang in a perfect cabaret style for three songs ("My Death," "Funeral Tango," and "If We Only Have Love") from Jacques Brel's Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. There could not be a much more difficult set of transitions for a singer than from langue d'oïl to lenga d'òc to 18th-century French, German, and English, and then to the particular style of Broadway; Thompson pulled it all off beautifully. There are always lots of instruments available at the Music House; Otis played the Music House Viennese-style fortepiano for the Brel accompaniment. This was a much better choice for Thompson's voice than the late-19th-century Steinway. There was never the feeling that there was a mismatch, and Otis handled the knee-lever dampers with sure aplomb.
Thompson had top billing on the program, totally appropriate for his impressive singing; Seligmann and Otis had equally important roles and deserve equal billing, even if impresario O'Brien chooses to hold a modest place in the shadows. To one and all, bravo; bravi!