Bella Voce offers stellar advocacy for ambitious Renaissance program

Mon Mar 19, 2012 at 7:03 am

By Dennis Polkow

Bella Voce performed music of the High Renaissance Sunday afternoon in River Forest.

In what may well be the most ambitious program in its nearly thirty-year history, Bella Voce presented a program Sunday afternoon at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest called “Music of the Sistine Chapel” devoted to masterworks composed for the papal choir in the full flowering of its High Renaissance glory.

The composer regarded as the apex of that sound and style is Palestrina and the work most associated with him is the Missa Papae Marcelli. It is this piece with which it has long been believed that Palestrina “rescued” polyphony from possible prohibition at the Council of Trent.

Although scholarship has come to question that view—along with the further speculation that the work had been originally composed for the coronation of Pope Marcellus II—it nonetheless remains Palestrina’s signature work and one that defines in sound, scope and beauty the aesthetic ideals of the Counter Reformation.

Making a comparison to the Bernini columns at the Vatican, Bella Voce artistic director Andrew Lewis aptly compared their perfect alignment to the pristine purity of Missa Papae Marcelli in his spoken remarks.

The Mass itself is in six voices, each given three singers per part, leaving those voices dangerously exposed given how much they are asked to do. There is nowhere to hide when you are singing polyphony in such daringly low numbers particularly for thirty-five minutes virtually non-stop.

Lewis, for his part, acted as a sculptor in real time maintaining balances and linear cohesion and at times, even helping to serve as an endurance coach, given the enormity and complexity of the piece.

Most choirs that perform Palestrina do a motet or two—works where it is easier to maintain purity on a smaller scale. With such a large canvas, there was striking musical cohesion across the work and, particularly for a chorus that does not regularly perform this kind of music, the results were not only dazzling, but mesmerizing.

Of no less interest was a performance of a new reconstruction of the famous Allegri Miserere. This Holy Week work was so revered that it was long considered an excommunicable offense to copy its music or ornamentations, which, due to its being traditionally performed in total darkness, had to be memorized by the papal choir.

Composers did write copies of the forbidden music from ear—including a 14-year old Mozart visiting the Vatican—but the version so known and beloved today is, according to British musicologist Ben Byram-Wigfield, not what would have been heard in Allegri’s day. Performing Byram-Wigfield’s reconstruction as Bella Voce did lowers the pitch of the solo quartet by a fourth which turns the solo quartet’s memorable high C (placed in the back balcony) to a lower G. The plainchant section was done in a tenor style with three singers from a side alcove.

It is an interesting idea to perform it in this manner, however, the familiarity of the standard score makes hearing this arrangement rather jarring at first. It could well be that Byram-Wigfield is correct, and perhaps greater familiarity with the new version may make it more palatable in time.

Opening the program were motets which acted as superb contrasts to the pristine High Renaissance of Palestrina: Josquin des Prez’s Praeter rerum seriem with its darkly harmonized slightly shifting decorated pedal points serving as a bridge between late medieval music and full-blown Renaissance polyphony, and Morales’ Spem in alium with its occasional minor seconds and tritone-imbued cadence showcasing a spicier more adventurous take on the period.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday March 24 at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Evanston.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Bella Voce offers stellar advocacy for ambitious Renaissance program”

  1. Posted Mar 19, 2012 at 10:35 am by Tina P

    Way to go, Andy, and everybody!!! hope to see you at St. Luke’s Saturday. Congrats on the great review.

  2. Posted Mar 21, 2012 at 3:21 pm by Frank and Janet Cole

    Andrew, That was such a spiritual experience. Absolute perfection. I had to miss church Sunday morning, but both Frank and I felt that we had indeed worshiped in the ultimate setting and the music flowed over us ..tell your wonderful vocalists what a stellar performance!!!

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