The virtues of musical plagiarism

The Dutch early music ensemble Cappella Pratensis, who performed Sunday at the Logan Center.

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Lyric Opera’s new production of “Siegfried,” the third opera in Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle, opened to a full house Saturday night. The singing ranged from very good to marvelous while the staging lurched from distractingly odd and idiosyncratic to revealingly dramatic.

University of Chicago Presents (UCP) opened their new season of the Howard Mayer Brown International Early Music Series Sunday afternoon at the Logan Center with a concert by Cappella Pratensis. The early music series, founded in 1981, features medieval, Renaissance and Baroque concerts by artists at the forefront of historically researched musical practices.

Cappella Pratensis first appeared with UCP in 1998, and UCP’s programs this year, as they celebrate its 75th anniversary season, are full of artists who have previously been big hits with audiences in the past.

The male vocal ensemble, based in the Netherlands, specializes in the music of Josquin Desprez and the polyphonists of the 15th and 16th centuries. Their Logan concert was entitled “The Imitation Game: Emulation, Competition and Homage at the Time of Josquin.” It sounds a little nerdy, but this group celebrates the nerdiness of early music study and the results are captivating and exciting.

One of the seven members of Cappella Pratensis, Andrew Hallock, spoke briefly to the audience to explain their program. He noted that plagiarism in music today can result in an artist being “sued savagely” and that if today’s “itchy attorneys and copyright laws” existed during the time of Josquin, then every composer on their program would have been jailed. This drew laughter, but also drew attention to an important point: emulation, copying, and quoting is a way of extending and improving musical ideas. Their program, showing first one work and then another which drew upon the first, proved their point with flair and panache.

Cappella Pratensis made a name for themselves by the high quality of their musicianship and scholarship, but they also have an unusual element in their performances. They place a large, old-fashioned music stand on the stage and at times gather in front it and sing as a clustered group with their backs to the stage. It’s an odd effect, not entirely satisfactory, but one which takes the listener into the past, when in a church or chapel the singers might have done exactly this. Whether you find it charming or vexing, it is an integral element of their performances. In an interview published in the program book, Stratton Bull, the artistic director of the group, explains that “it creates a very physical link between the singers and changes the dynamic within the group, and in a very organic way that’s very suitable to the music.”

Sunday’s concert was engaging and educational, and it put the finely honed skills of the singers on display. There were beautiful, haunting unisons in the opening “Victime paschali laudes,” a simple plainchant. Then the group of seven would break up into groups of various sizes, typically with a single singer to a part. Andrew Hallock was often a soloist, and his high voice had refinement, notable in “D’ung aultre amer” by Ockeghem.

The singers were adept at creating moods, blending their voices, and drawing out interesting and unexpected harmonies. They made complex polyphonies transparent and communicated their devotion to the music. They offered serious music imbued with mystery.

Knowing to look for where different composers treated similar themes and music in different ways drew the audience into the music. A set which may have begun with music of small interest, ended with excitement and insights you would not have predicted. When you add the depth of interpretation by the ensemble, it made for a very satisfying concert and a splendid way to inaugurate this year’s early music series.

The next UCP concert is Friday at 7:30 p.m. in Mandel Hall. Alexander Fiterstein (clarinet), Michael Brown (piano), Elena Urioste (violin) and Nicholas Canellakis (cello) perform Weinberg’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano and Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.” Visit chicagopresents.uchicago.edu for more information.