Mischievous Medieval Minstrels at the top of the Logan Center

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

It can be fun and fascinating to learn about something just as it coalesces into being. Sunday night the newly formed University of Chicago Medieval Minstrelsy gave their first concert and I was there at the ground floor. And by ground floor I mean the penthouse of the university’s new Logan Center for the Arts.

The Medieval Minstrelsy is a small group of just 11 performers. Five are U. of C. students, two are on the university staff, one is a faculty member, and three are members of the community. Seven are singers and four are recorder players. (Other instruments came into play as well; more on that later.) One of the attractive features of the group is that it contains a wide range of ages, from young adults to one or two sporting a few gray hairs. It’s good to see musicians of all ages coming together to perform, where the experience of years mixes with the talented enthusiasm of youth.

The group is led by Chicago bass-baritone Andrew Schultze, who, among other things, is a soloist at Rockefeller Chapel as well as voice teacher to some of the group’s singers. He opened the free concert with helpful remarks on the program. It was a collection of 13th century songs and dances, and he assured the tiny but rapt audience that this would not be a display of impenetrable chants but almost entirely secular music with melodic verve.

Many of the texts had mundane themes: the work of a farm girl, the pleasure of a glass of wine, the preparation of a bath. But these texts were brightened by music which, even centuries later, speaks to the joy in ordinary things.

The main work on the program was “The Play of Robin and Marion” from 1284 by Adan de la Halle (also known as Adan the Hunchback). This Robin is not a daring hero but rather an average bloke who is a clever and cheerful lover. His Marion is not a seemingly unattainable woman protected by either power or money, but a simple shepherdess with a happy if cheeky disposition.

The play seems to be the 13th century equivalent, if that’s possible, of our modern musical. It combines singing (solos, duets, ensembles) with spoken dialogue and dances. Schultze made the right decision in having the texts sung in their original medieval French while the spoken dialogue was rendered in the idiomatic English of our day. Even though the singers stood at music stands, performing for the most part concert-style, the spoken English and the evocative music meant we always knew where things were going. It’s a 20-minute piece which moved along so engagingly, you could hardly believe how much time had passed by the time it was over.

The story has its bawdy side, if often subtextual, adding amusement. Daniel Muratore as Robin was eager and convincing as the lad whose love has given him a satisfying happiness and the naturally resulting lusty impulses. Ji Su Kang was a bright and sassy Marion, more than a match for the passing knight who fancies a dalliance with her. Luke Duroc-Danner created a splendidly haughty Sir Albert, the knight who hadn’t the wit to snare Marion but who had all the airs of privilege. Urs Schmidt-Ott added straight-man comedy with his song of cow dung.

The play featured two splendid original dances choreographed and performed by Duroc-Danner and Michelle Ross. The former is an experienced ballroom dancer, the latter a devotee of folk dancing. Based on their own research, they created two short dances attempting to be as faithful to the period as possible. (After all, we have no YouTubes of the era, so this is precisely where skill must let scholarship be the inspiration.)

Sam Albright, James Fackenthal, Lawrence Johnson and Esther Schechter formed a recorder quartet for the play, creating music that transported us hundreds of years into the pastoral past. Johnson also employed the unusual crumhorn during the Estampie, the second dance number.

Schultze led the group with the comfortable air of a man who knows the work speaks for itself. It was a charming performance.

The first half of the program was made up of a handful of short songs. It opened with a French processional song, “Bache Bene Venies” from about 1230. This jaunty tune featured all the singers and the recorder quartet.

Christine Schultze, Andrew’s wife, gave pleasing performances of two songs. First, from England circa 1300, was “Byrd One Brere” where a woman sings to bird of her love. James Fackenthal opened the song with airy bird-like sounds from the recorder and then a dialogue ensured between him and Sam Albright on a deeper recorder. Schultze’s soprano was sweet and her understated approach was just right. She also made fine work of a traditional Sephardic Jewish song from Morocco, “Aye Mi Padre.” The latter featured the delicate sounds of the tenor viola da gamba played by Fackenthal.

Urs Schmidt-Ott was the soloist for the “Palaestinalied,” where the pilgram sings of his joy of having seen “the Holy City where God walked as a man.” He was amusing in “Alte Clamat Epicurus” (a parody of the “Palaestinalied”) singing of the happiness of a full stomach and where the sweet smells of the kitchen proclaim divinity.

The “Trotto,” an Italian dance piece by an unknown composer, gave the four recorder players their chance to shine all alone.

Andrew Schultze was not a distant leader, but sometimes a performer, occasionally singing along with the men, once taking an introductory solo, sometimes playing drum-like handheld instruments, but most importantly, leading the way when spoken sound effects were employed, such as the barnyard sounds which opened “Exiit Dilucolo.”

If medieval music is your thing, keep your eyes open for future performances of the University of Chicago Medieval Minstrelsy.