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For many ensembles, fall signals the start of a new season. But for Piffaro, it’s the beginning of a transformation. Last season, Philadelphia’s world-renowned Renaissance band bid farewell to founders Bob Wiemken and Joan Kimball, and they’ve opened a new era with a lively and thoughtful musical exploration of Passing the Torch. (A recorded streaming option is following the live concerts in Philadelphia and Wilmington.)
As she began planning this concert, Piffaro’s new director Priscilla Herreid (who played winningly throughout the concert) considered interactions between teachers and mentors who became musical colleagues, echoing her own relationship with Kimball and Wiemken. In her excellent and thorough program notes (a Piffaro highlight that seems likely to continue), she says that “it occurred to me that relationships like these can be found throughout the Renaissance. I thought this could make a good concert.”
A luminous instrumentarium
And indeed, it did. The concert opened with a fanfare for the long trumpets (Greg Ingles and Erik Schmalz, always thrilling) and launched into musical connections via nine instrumental sets. Each set was programmed with works by a noted Renaissance composer and disciples whom they influenced or mentored in a concert evenly divided among sacred music, songs or secular music, and music for the dance. As always, Piffaro’s huge “instrumentarium” (shawms, dulcians, krumhorns, sackbuts, recorders, and bagpipes all laid out onstage) and their multi-instrumental skills are dazzling. In this concert, Priscilla and husband Grant Herreid each played seven different instruments; Ingles and Schmalz each played five; and guest artists Alexa Raine-Wright (recorders and flutes) and Georgeanne Banker (dulcian and recorders) also played percussion.
The first of the three song sets focused on Fors Seulement, a popular 15th-century chanson, set around 30 times by different people. Piffaro chose four of these settings, including an especially luminous rendering of the tune composed by Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1410-1497 and enormously famous in his own time) first intoned simply on recorder, with added instruments deepening each succeeding verse.
Secular and sacred works
Another set of songs featured works by Cipriano de Rore (1515-1565), beginning with his remarkable Calami sonum ferentes. The work is filled with tonal shifts inside dense polyphony that resolves into chorale-like chords, surely very modern for its time and still sounding so today. One of the concert’s highlights was in this section: the Divisions on Ancor che col partire by Riccardo Rognoni (c. 1550-1620). This is an enormously virtuosic work for recorder, embellishing Cipriano’s tune (which they played first) with spectacular “divisions” (ornaments). Underscored by Grant’s eloquent lute-playing, Raine-Wright rendered these divisions with equally spectacular clarity and grace.
There were three sets of sacred music, one including the smooth, serene polyphonic motet In omni tribulation by Jean Mouton (c. 1459-1522), followed by works composed by his student Adrian Willaert (1490-1562), whom he taught at the French court. And there was a beautifully sculpted section by two of the most familiar names on the program: Orlando de Lassus (c. 1532-1594) and the great Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525-1594). Lassus worked for the pope as maestro di cappella of S. Giovanni Laterano in Rome, and Palestrina followed him in the job. This set featured beautiful interpretations of the Agnus Dei from two of their masses: Missa de Feri in Quadrigesima (Lassus) and Missa Ecce Sacerdos Magnus (Palestrina).
Dancing in the Renaissance
The concert opened and closed with dance music—at the outset, a lively work by Michael Praetorius (1570-1621) titled La Forze d’Hercole / Bransle de la Torche. A “bransle” (also called a “brawl”) is a French dance for couples (in a line or circle, a nod to continuity), and “torche” is French for torch. Later in the program, there was an extended medley of 10 short works (arranged by Grant) from the Orchesography of Jehan Tabourot (1520-1595). The work is a fictional dialogue between a dance student and Thoinot Arbeau (an anagram of the composer’s name) that is the primary source of information on 16th-century choreography. During this set, a troupe of period dancers in the row behind me were practically dancing in their seats.
The evening ended with another lively dance set: two works by Pierre Attaingnant (c. 1494-1551) and one by Claude Gervaise (1525-1583). The former was an influential and innovative music publisher, and Gervaise—his apprentice whose spritely galliard closed the program—ultimately became the director of Attaingnant’s publishing firm. It was an appropriate ending reinforcing the theme of this concert, an auspicious start to Piffaro’s next era.
What, When, Where
Passing the Torch. Music by composers of the 15th and 16th centuries. Piffaro artists with guest artists Alexa Raine-Wright and Georgeanne Banker. Piffaro Renaissance Band. $32-$53 (free for students) in person; $19 to stream. Live concerts on September 30, 2022 at Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral; October 1, 2022 at Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill; and October 2, 2022 at Wilmington’s First & Central Presbyterian Church. A recording of the concert will be available to stream online October 8-18, 2022. (215) 235-8469 or piffaro.org
Each in-person concert required masks inside the venue.
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