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A noël discovery

Piffaro presents A French Noël’

In
4 minute read
This Piffaro performance began with a traditional procession. (Photo by Bill DiCecca.)
This Piffaro performance began with a traditional procession. (Photo by Bill DiCecca.)

Most people who found a 16th-century manuscript right in their neighborhood’s library might simply admire the book and marvel in hushed tones. But Piffaro founding member and artistic codirector Joan Kimball decided to bring the pages to multidimensional life for A French Noël, a special Christmas season performance from Philly’s Renaissance band.

Kimball found Lewis E 21, a tiny illuminated manuscript (circa 1520), bound in an unprepossessing brown cover in the archives of the Free Library of Philadelphia. The illustrated work holds the text of more than 50 French noëls, combinations of poetry and song.

Instruments, voices, and visuals

A French Noël was first performed 10 years ago, and this year Piffaro remounted this winning combination of secular and sacred music illuminated with charming pantomimes. The group performed the unique holiday concert in both Philadelphia and Wilmington. Like last year’s recreation of a German Reformation Christmas, in Delaware the celebration a la Française was in the intimate Immanuel Church Highlands, whose clear acoustics, timbered roof, and hand-hewn stone make it an evocative early music setting. It was an especially apt venue: Piffaro’s program notes asked audiences to imagine themselves in a small church outside of Paris.

Inspired by the book’s early Renaissance illustrations (some reprinted), Piffaro partnered with Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell (Washington, DC, performers from The Revels and the devising ensemble Happenstance Theater) to create the visuals in this moving and charming evening. Piffaro also enlisted Les Canards Chantants, an ensemble (founded in England but now in Philadelphia) known for finely tuned vocals whose robust singing, emotional flexibility, and sense of adventure made them a good fit for this multifaceted performance.

The interior of Wilmington's Immanuel Church Highlands was a perfect setting for this Renaissance-inspired performance. (Photo by Bill DiCecca.)
The interior of Wilmington's Immanuel Church Highlands was a perfect setting for this Renaissance-inspired performance. (Photo by Bill DiCecca.)

Altogether wonderful

After an invocation from the singers, the program opened with a procession of musicians and actors under a hand-lettered banner reading “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” The evening was not a presentation of a sacred service, though Piffaro built the program around the musical components (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, etc.) of a mass by Thomas Crecquillon (1505-1557). The composer married a secular tune with his sacred work; each mass section opens with straight Gregorian chant (beautifully sung in French Latin) before moving into intricate and luscious polyphony, both a cappella and accompanied.

As they might have been in the 1500s, six noëls are inserted into the mass — songs based on melodies or poems of the era that are part ballad, part madrigal, and altogether wonderful. Featuring the entire company in music and pantomime, they were remarkably sophisticated and enchanting constructions — charming, witty, sometimes devotional and sometimes irreverent.

During the noëls, while Piffaro played and Les Chantants sang (with helpful supertitles), Mandell and Jaster distilled their motion to animate the illustrations: a shy shepherd with his folk-art-style cutout sheep is baffled by the star of Bethlehem; weary Joseph looks for shelter and finds only a stable; a radiant Mary hears the news from Gabriel and bears a son. The two performers evoked wonder and naiveté without condescension, bringing vividly to life not only the book’s artworks (sometimes projected behind them) but also — with the turn of a head or bend of a knee — a wondrous sense of the entire 16th century.

This frontispiece for a book of French noëls (c. 1520) shows the shepherds and Christ child. (Image via the Free Library.)
This frontispiece for a book of French noëls (c. 1520) shows the shepherds and Christ child. (Image via the Free Library.)

“Noël,” then and now

Piffaro arranged all the noël and musical settings, and the group also played a half-dozen instrumental interludes with their accustomed verve and élan. In the inclusive spirit of the season, the instrumentalists talked to audience members during intermission and even conducted an informal “petting zoo” of the shawms, sackbuts, and string instruments, charming children and equally interested adults.

In her informative and thoroughly researched program notes, Kimball says that noël originally meant “news,” a cry for attention or to express joy, but it became associated with the birth of Christ in the 13th century. Noël melodies were the inspiration for later 17th-century mass settings, one of the most famous being Charpentier’s Messe de minuit pour Noël.

Extensive scholarship and intricate programmatic construction are hallmarks of the multi-instrumentalist Piffaro musicians. The group always uses this considerable research, the bedrock of all of the ensemble’s work, to create vivid and indelible performances. Here, its look into another time — created by the synergy of three like-minded ensembles — brought 16th-century France indelibly to life: a true holiday gift.

What, When, Where

A French Noël. Songs, pantomime and instrumental music from 16th-century France conceived by Joan Kimball and performed by Piffaro (Grant Herreid, Priscilla Herreid, Greg Ingles, Joan Kimball, Erik Schmalz, and Bob Wiemken). Also featured were guest artists Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell (actors) and Les Canards Chantant (Molly Netter, Robin Bier, Michael Jones, Bradley King, and Graham Bier). December 23, 2018, at Immanuel Church Highlands, 2400 W. 17th Street, Wilmington, DE. (215) 235-8469 or piffaro.org.

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