Last night, local early music ensemble Cançonièr performed in what was their last appearance until next year. In the somewhat noisy parish hall of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church this four member ensemble played a slightly condensed version of a program they have been touring for the last year or so. It was a program called ‘Black Dragon’ with music from the first half of the 15th century, the time of the reign of Count Vlad Dracula, the historical antecedent of the vampire character.
Cançonièr is a four member ensemble co-directed by Tim Rayborn and Annette Bauer. The other two regulars are Shira Kammen and Phoebe Jevtovic. All are amazing instrumentalists and scholars in their own right and all play in other ensembles and groupings.
Tim Rayborn is a medieval scholar , multi-instrumentalist, singer and performer. Annette Bauer is a recorder virtuoso, multi-instrumentalist and singer. Shira Kammen plays vielle (antecedent of the violin/viola), medieval harp and sings. And Phoebe Jevtovic is a singer who also does double duty by playing a small bell set in some of the pieces.
The group goes beyond their scholarship (which is excellent) and puts their performances in context. They provide translations of the words they sing (frequently in dead or antiquated languages) and they connect with their audience with a pleasant sense of humor as well as drama.
They clearly enjoy playing together and seem very connected, deriving great pleasure from making music. And they produce a beautiful sound with their intricately crafted replicas of the instruments of the time.
One complaint. The location of this church at Bancroft and Ellsworth makes for a bit of urban distraction provided by sirens and traffic. And there were apparently other activities going on in the church complex which could be occasionally heard. But the musicians and audience handled the distractions in a good-natured manner consistent with the rest of their performances.
They began and ended their intermissionless program with a narrative drama with music partly sung, partly spoken or intoned but performed with characteristic flair by Tim Rayborn accompanied by himself on frame drum and the ensemble. This was a jaunty upbeat sounding piece at the outset that gives way to the narrative talking/singing about the infamous subject of this performance here called Dracula of Wallachia. The language here sounded like an old German dialect and after the brief but harrowing telling of the story in speech and song (the speech gratefully rendered in English) the jaunty music of the beginning returns to conclude the piece. One can imagine this being performed in a tavern or inn by a troubadour or group of musicians for the guests.
Rayborn then spoke to the audience providing more context by explaining that tonight’s music is from the time of the Count’s reign but that it is not known if he indeed had musicians in his court. And for those who do not know the story of ‘Vlad the impaler’, as he was known, this is pretty grisly stuff. Reality programming from the dark ages if you will.
There followed two more composed songs, a folk song, a traditional Romanian dance, a heart-rending Moldavian chant passionately sung by Jevtovic and a traditional Bulgarian dance.
I have not bothered to mention the composers’ names (which were listed in the printed program) because they are very little know and would likely clutter this little narrative. My apologies to the composers and the scholars if I have offended in my omissions.
But the next piece was by a composer familiar to anyone who has taken a course in western music history, Guillame Dufay (1397-1474). The work of this composer, who provided a lot of sacred music for the church as well as secular pieces, was so successful that his work and his name have survived the ravages of history. The ‘Lamentio Sanctae Matris Ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae’ required the vocal skills of all four in the group as well as instrumental accompaniment. And they did so beautifully singing, we were told, in two different languages as the piece is originally written.
There followed an Italian dance, a Byzantine secular court piece called a “kratima” (spell check is practically useless here), a medieval Russian pilgrim song and an Ottoman Turkish piece followed by a very spirited reprise of the first piece.
All in all a very satisfying evening and a clearly appreciative audience sent this writer out into the Berkeley night not with nightmarish images but with the tunes of this joyful performance ringing in his head (medieval earworms?). And I popped one of their CDs in my car stereo for the ride home. I could easily hear this again.