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Piffaro’s 1616 baptism and balletBY: Tom Purdom 10.26.2010
Piffaro’s historical productions can’t create a full reproduction of the events they’re based on. But this simulation of a 17th-Century royal baptism provided some sense of the way their music felt when it was part of the day-to-day life of the court and the street.
Piffaro: “The Royals’ Baptism and Ballet.” Music by Lechner, Daser, Aichinger, et al. Parthenia (viol consort); Blue Heron (chorus); Piffaro (Renaissance winds); Laura Heimes, soprano; New York Historical Dance Company. October 23, 2010 at Church of the Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Square, and Trinity Center, 22nd and Spruce Sts. (215) 235-8469 or www.piffaro.org.
Once upon a time, in StuttgartTOM PURDOM
The dinner break between the two halves of Piffaro’s latest outing was one of the event’s most effective aspects.
Piffaro based the two-part program on the festivities that surrounded the christening of a German prince in 1616. At 5 p.m., the audience gathered at Holy Trinity for a one-hour concert that recreated the pomp of a princely baptismal mass. Then we took a two-hour dinner break and regrouped at Trinity Center, five blocks away, for a program that featured the kind of song and dance spectacle that ended the eight-day celebration.
As Piffaro likes to remind us, nobody organized sit-down-and-listen concerts in the late Renaissance era that’s Piffaro’s specialty. Like many of the group’s previous programs, this doubleheader embedded the music in a suggestion of its historical setting.
The dinner break heightened the effect by adding a bit of real socializing. I hit Szechuan Hunan, the Chinese restaurant near 20th and Spruce, with three friends, and we chatted about this and that (including the music) and even gossiped a bit, much as the 17th-Century guests in Stuttgart would have chatted and gossiped after the real christening, en route to the lighter pleasures scheduled by their host.
Preparing for war
Prince Frederick’s father staged a big show because the christening was a maneuver in the jockeying that preceded the Thirty Years’ War. The festivities demonstrated Stuttgart’s wealth and power and consequently strengthened the royal family’s alliances with its powerful Protestant guests.
Piffaro couldn’t reproduce the music actually played at the festival. The Stuttgart court published a descriptive book and a set of engravings but no programs listing the music. For the baptism, Piffaro performed a baptismal mass with different sections composed by composers associated with the Stuttgart court.
The baptismal concert was a low-key affair, without the fanfares you might have expected on such an occasion. The splendor resided in the complexity and beauty of the music, and in the opulent blend of voices and historical instruments.
Piffaro’s guest choir, the Blue Heron ensemble, enhanced the opulence with female altos who produced a striking simulation of the fuller, rounded sound created by the male altos who would have filled their places in the original church performances.
Forgotten dances recovered
The second concert focused on a “Ballet of the Nations,” featuring dancers from Dorothy Olsson’s New York Historical Dance Company. The Ballet of Nations was a common offering at the court entertainments of the period, with the dancers performing dances associated with different lands.
Soprano Laura Heimes sang a regal greeting to the guests at the ballet and added a touch of bawdiness with a full-length rendition of “Watkins’s Ale” (which is not a drinking song, the ale of the title being a euphemism for other forms of stimulation). The guest viol consort, Parthenia, had colored the baptismal mass with the distinctive sound of their instruments, and now they added a cheerier version to the dance numbers.
The fête ended with Blue Heron’s vocalists stepping out of the audience and joining Heimes and the instrumentalists in a massed final salute to the rulers of Stuttgart and the Golden Age they were creating.
Piffaro’s historical productions can’t create a full reproduction of the events they’re based on. But they can give us some sense of the way their music felt when it was part of the day-to-day life of the court and the street. And they can surround some great music with an entertaining mixture of novelty and fun. Just like the prince of Stuttgart did, 400 years ago.
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