The hand-hewn stone and intricate timber framing of Wilmington, Delaware’s Immanuel Church Highlands takes any audience back in time, so it was the perfect, intimate setting for Piffaro’s Christmas offering, Es ist ein Ros. The well-known, much-lauded Renaissance band (which had already performed the concert twice in Philadelphia) was in splendid form.
All is calm, all is bright
Multi-instrumentalists all (sometimes seeming to play two or three instruments at once), the exceptional ensemble was composed of Joan Kimball, Bob Wiemken, Greg Ingles, and Grant and Priscilla Herreid. They were joined by guest artists Erik Schmalz (sackbut, recorder, and krumhorn) and soprano Jessica Beebe.
Together, the musicians played more than 40 Renaissance instruments, recorders, shawms, lute, theorbo, percussion, and bagpipes among them. So you might expect the music to be esoteric and challenging. But Piffaro has the gift of translating their formidable musicology and scholarship into performances that are the exact opposite. The concert was (as usual) engaging, accessible, and uplifting. Suddenly, amid holiday crowds and hurly-burly, here was an oasis of joyous calm.
The program — which never felt forced or molded into shape — was an intricate construction winningly conceived by Wiemken and Kimball. Each of the concert’s seven sections had a title (“Praise & Rejoicing,” “Wechselgesang: The Christmas Story,” etc.) and was illuminated by projections of period artwork and lyrics seamlessly integrated into the performance.
These were German carols of the Reformation period, and many of them, like “Resonet in laudibus” or “In dulci jubilo,” are still-sung holiday tunes. Each section was shaped into a suite with settings featuring differing instruments in arrangements by different composers. Some, such as Michael Praetorius or Hans Leo Hassler, are familiar, but others (Isaac Posch, Leonhard Paminger, Adam Gumpelzhaimer) were new to me. And some was the work of that ubiquitous composer, Anonymous.
Because these are carols, the concert featured a singer, Jessica Beebe. Her elegant lyric soprano was perfectly attuned to the period. Beebe opened the concert by progressing up the center aisle accompanied by Grant Herreid on lute, a magical effect from the start.
Throughout, the music was drawn from the 15th- and 16th-century Renaissance, with some early-17th-century, bordering-on-Baroque offerings. The title work, “Est is ein Ros,” is one of the most resonant of all Christmas texts, and it was sung and played to perfection in a version by Praetorius that must be one of that prolific composer’s loveliest settings. Another highlight was Christoph Bernhard’s “Currite,” a lively work for theorbo, recorders and soprano with ornamentation that musically exhorted the lagging shepherds to hurry along. In every one of this concert’s 45 “movements,” the ensemble played with clear joy and impeccable musicianship.
Unlike some chamber works, this music was not written for the court or for performance in a noble setting. It was written for people to hear and then to sing, mostly in church. There would be settings for a soloist or choir, a musical interlude, and then verses for the congregation to join. Piffaro followed this tradition. The program included two pieces of sheet music, and at the indicated times, the audience enthusiastically sang along in German.
For us today, it’s tempting — and rather delicious — to fantasize about this period as a simple time. But of course, that’s not really the case. These works were often created as a response to or a respite from conflict. After all, most of it was written during the turbulent Reformation, which Piffaro memorializes this current season.
Still, along with other fantasies of the holiday, it’s replenishing to enter for a time, however brief, into a belief of simpler days and beautiful music that takes away our cares, lifting and inspiring today as it did then.