News Column

Review: Human emotions shine in centuries-old music at Duluth concert

October 7, 2013


Oct. 07--In a very special sense, Time was of the Essence on Saturday night at the Mitchell Auditorium on the campus of the College of St. Scholastica.

Five musicians were savoring

25 years of performing music together and sharing that with two musicians added in recent years. The college itself still is feeling the headiness of celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2012 and going strong across Minnesota and around the world. Finally, the music that was shared has captivated singers and players for somewhere between 600 and 1,000 years.

That made the 75 minutes of tuneful, rhythmic music seem like an incredible bargain with far-reaching effects.

Back in 1988, William Bastian brought his height and his very flexible voice to join the Center for Early Music, a strong part of CSS at the time. He sang 16 songs, the most recent dating from about 1450. Most of the evening he stayed in his countertenor register, very high, very light, sharing songs about love, sacred and secular. His texts were in Latin, French, Italian, sometimes a blending of church texts with secular verses in between.

Throughout most of the evening, Bastian was joined by baritone Brett Amundson, current choral director at the college. They sang in parallel patterns, adding to the high and low instruments that were accompanying them. Meanwhile, Shelley Gruskin, LeAnn House, Penny Schwarze, Marianne Connelly and Jeremy Craycraft, all part of the musical presence at CSS, had more than 20 instruments arranged around them.

Three times, Bastian and Amundson offered chants on famous church texts. Two voices, one text, floating across the room. Gruskin added his mechanical, string hurdy-gurdy on the first hymn, setting a gently haunting tone to the evening.

Music of this era, while not deep in harmony, is always rich in melody and aggressive in rhythm -- all the more exciting when Gruskin and Connelly played their krummhorns, which are curved, reedy wind instruments with rather piercing, precise tones.

All the players joined in the great "Agincourt Carol," for an English military victory in 1415, as well as the "Douce Dame Jolie," a famous love song by the well-known Guillaume de Machaut around 1340. Energetic rhythms were accentuated by Craycraft, playing percussive instruments with his hands, knees and drumsticks, sometimes all together. House would use quills to pluck her stringed psaltery, and at other times she had an "organetto," a very small pipe organ with hand bellows and small tabs for playing the notes.

Schwarze kept shifting from one bowed instrument to another, a couple of small ones hand-held and the viol firmly gripped between the knees. So all evening we were entertained by strong singers, clear string sounds, wooden pipes of many shapes and sizes, metal organ pipes, plucked instruments and a delicate blend of percussive instruments. Many of these pieces were like Top 40 selections, which is partially why they have survived and why they are still so entertaining. Composers -- such as Machaut, Power and Dunstable -- have their names attached to music that is 700 years old and older. That's quite a tribute to the contribution they must have made in their own times.

The music stopped all too quickly. Songs of glory, songs of faith, songs of love, songs of victory bring hundreds of years of human emotions into perspective. Our emotions are very similar, even if we express them in our own styles. That is how it should be. Thanks to all these performers who keep our sense of human perspective very fresh.

Samuel Black, living across several centuries, enjoys 21st century words while tapping his fingers to 14th century love songs.


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