Piffaro’s recent Dancers' Delight concert made me remember hearing the New York Pro Musica as a teenager in the 1970s—the exciting and strangely foreign Medieval and Renaissance music played so artfully on instruments I had never seen before was miraculous. I put aside my Crosby, Stills, and Nash and looked for more early music, but often found stilted and uninspired performances and recordings.
Decades later, I discovered the lively music of Piffaro. Last weekend, Piffaro and Sonnambula, the early-music ensemble currently in residence at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, came together for a concert at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral. The dances Michael Praetorius published in his 1612 collection Terpsichore came alive, with the strings and harpsichord adding to the texture.
A delightful shindig
The long list of titles on the program is deceptive. The pieces are simple tunes: some quite short, like the “Bransle de la Torche,” a French circle dance lasting half a minute and repeated as each dancer chooses a new partner. The musicians who played these tunes ad infinitum must have added variations, and Piffaro and Sonnambula did so, too, trading off lines and improvising to create a delightful shindig.
Many of the songs alternated between woodwinds and strings, with the reedy krumhorns blaring and then yielding to the fairylike violin and viol voices. The dulcians, sackbuts, and douçaines were soft and lulling, and the bagpipes, in the hands of Joan Kimball and Priscilla Herreid, could be either soft or blast forth like a Scottish highlander.
Joy before the rain
All of the Piffaro recorder players are excellent, but when Priscilla Herreid picks up the recorder, she has magic. Is it the microsecond longer she spends on one note or the tiny fraction of a degree of pitch she knows how to place?
The beautiful playing by James Kennerley on the harpsichord and Grant Herreid on the lute was not always loud enough for the enormous church, but their subtle sounds brought the audience to an unusual attentiveness and made every articulation, trill, and mordent take on a magnified role in the music.
The evening’s music was so joyous and springlike that it was a letdown to come out into the rainy, windy night and get drenched while waiting for a bus. But the warmth of the music stayed in my head and rekindled my youthful fascination with early music.
What, When, Where
Dancers’ Delight. Michael Praetorius’s 1612 Terpsichore collection. Piffaro, the Renaissance Band. March 15, 16, and 17, 2019, at Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral and Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia; and Christ Church Christiana Hundred in Wilmington, DE. (215) 235-8469 or piffaro.org.