By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic
In 2014 a Belgian art dealer purchased a lot composed of old papers at auction. One element of the lot was a small book with vellum pages smaller than postcards. Each opening (two pages facing each other) contained a song hand-printed in brown ink. After the dealer took the book to an early music expert, a surprising discovery was made: the book was a rare collection of songs from about 1460, with a dozen of the songs never previously known. These very old songs were new.
And so the songbook (“chansonnier”) became the centerpiece of a concert in Hyde Park on Saturday as the Newberry Consort joined forces with the early music group Les Délices (based in Cleveland) for a concert entitled “What’s Old is New: The Leuven Chansonnier” at the Logan Center. Debra Nagy, the founder of Les Délices and a regular guest artist with the Newberry Consort, was the director of the program.
Nagy describes the “Leuven Songbook” in the program notes: “Given as gifts or commissioned for a particular owner, chansonniers contain both popular and little-known or unique songs. Effectively, chansonniers were the 15th-century’s answer to today’s personal playlist.” The “Leuven Songbook” is similar to five other books known collectively as the “Loire Valley Chansonniers.” Six of the previously unknown songs in the “Leuven Songbook” were performed in Saturday’s concert.
Nagy notes that it is natural to try to find links or relationships between songs and the concert was devised to present an imaginary story of love and loss based on the “Roman de la Rose,” a widely-read work of the Middle Ages. Two people meet, fall in love, are separated, misunderstandings ensue until they come together again with new hope.
The 80-minute concert without intermission was an intimate affair with a small number of singers and instrumentalists. Ellen Hargis (co-director of the Newberry Consort) and Debra Nagy were the female singers, offering ardent interpretations of the music. Hargis had a star turn with “Comme femme disconfortée” by Binchois, with a restrained approach to her despair in love, but which had palpable tension and anguish. Nagy has a small voice, but it was clear and plaintive and she sang with great attention to her accompanying singers.
Tenor Jacon McStoots was the primary male voice, offering ardent singing, often supported by the fine work of singers Daniel Fridley and Charles Weaver.
The small set of instrumentalists were superb. Charles Weaver on lute was magnificent. David Douglass (co-director of the Newberry Consort) and Allison Monroe offered splendid music on the vielle (precursor to the violin). Nagy was glorious on recorder, providing nimble and hauntingly beautiful sound. She also played the harp, which was lovely when one could hear it, but most of the time it was simply inaudible. Charles Metz was the most surprising of the players because of his unusual instrument: the organetto. It is a tiny organ, small enough to carry while playing (or, as in this concert, can be played while it sits on the player’s lap). It has sound like an organ, but much smaller. It was an intriguing instrument played with skill and flair.
This instrument, very rare in the United States, has been made a gift to the Newberry Consort by Charles Metz. It was on display after the concert for folks to examine close-up and Metz answered various questions about it. I look forward to hearing this organetto again at future Newberry events.
One of the fascinating elements of the concert was how the various parts of the music were played. The songbooks of the time were often unclear as to who would perform each part, and so the preparation for the performance included deciding when the music would be performed on instruments (and which ones) and when it would be sung. Each musical number was full and felt complete and natural, a result of the careful preparation and musical acumen of these performers.
The concert was fascinating and performed with commitment from beginning to end. Yet one was inevitably left with questions. Why were only six of the 12 new songs performed when the concert had a dozen musical numbers? Were those “new” songs left out not any good? If the “Leuven Songbook” is a unique playlist, a look into a specific past, why wasn’t a story built around the songs in this book rather than relying on something else (the “Roman de la Rose”)? The concert featured projections at the back of the stage, but most of these were not from the “Leuven Songbook” but were pages from the “Roman de la Rose.” Was this because the Leuven book was too uninteresting visually?
In the end, it seemed that the “Leuven Songbook” got a certain amount of attention, but considering its exciting history, it seemed squeezed into a narrative that diminished the excitement of the new find, rather than heightening it.
The Newberry Consorts final concert of the 2018-19 season is entitled “Le Jardin de Melodies” A Parisian Renaissance Entertainment.” It will feature sixteenth-century French ballads, dance music, and polyphony for lutes, vocal consort and violin band. It will feature the world-famous lutenist Paul O’Dette and is presented in partnership with the Newberry Library Center for Renaissance Studies.
There will be three performances (5-7 Apr.) with the Hyde Park concert taking place at 8 p.m. at the Logan Center (915 E. 60th St.). For more information, visit newberryconsort.org.