Schola Antiqua serves up a radiant and timely tribute to St. Anne

Mon May 12, 2014 at 10:08 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

"Virgin and Child with Saint Anne" by Albrecht Dürer, c.1519.
“Virgin and Child with Saint Anne” by Albrecht Dürer, c.1519.

One could hardly wish for a more inviting setting for an early music concert than Bond Chapel, situated in the peaceful University of Chicago Quad on a gorgeous spring evening.

The concert by Schola Antiqua, one of Chicago’s many early music groups, was first class in every respect, offering a deft blend of rigorous scholarship and refined performances under artistic director Michael Alan Anderson.

Friday night’s program titled “A Mother’s Mother” was well-suited for Mother’s Day weekend. All of the music was inspired by Saint Anne—the mother of Mary, mother of Jesus. This selective corner of repertory clearly holds great interest for Anderson: his book St. Anne in Renaissance Music was published this month by Cambridge University Press.

Schola Antiqua is dedicated to the performance of music written before 1600. The ten-member a cappella choir showed impressive cohesion and finely blended unity under Anderson’s direction. There were some fleeting reedy moments from one of the tenors but the vocalism was on the whole polished, precisely articulated and expressively shaded.

The plainchant Lucis huius festa served as entrance processional, the radiant singing setting the right atmosphere for the evening, along with Anderson’s user-friendly introductions.

The Carmelite nuns were particular devotees of St. Anne, as shown by the antiphon Felix Anna quedam matrona with its soaring line. The plainchant was sung with shimmering purity by Schola Antiqua’s two sopranos, Laura Lynch and Stephanie Sheffield, from the back choir loft.

Two excerpts were heard from Pierre de la Rue’s Mass for St. Anne. The Kyrie is strikingly beautiful, with its overlapping polyphony and artful varying of vocal colors, the ensuing Sanctus leading to a resounding coda. An anonymous Polyphonic Sequence offered surprisingly rich and sumptuous sonorities and an earnest plea for mercy (“Miserere nobis pie”) in the final stanza.

The second half of the program concentrated on music composed for the French royal court. Jean Mouton’s Celeste Beneficium is a real discovery, notable for the motet’s direct addresses to Anne and the independence of Mouton’s weaving vocal lines. The Schola Antiqua singers’ pure-toned rendering provided the finest possible advocacy.

In his research, Anderson discovered an anonymous Mass for St. Anne in an obscure manuscript buried in the national library of France, a gift given to Marguerite of Navarra in 1518. Friday night’s performance of two excerpts, Anderson noted, were likely the belated world premieres, centuries after the music was written.

The Introit Noli timere mater filiorum was especially attractive, sung by the two sopranos, and the ensuing Communion Gaudium et leticia, provided fine contrast from the men’s low voices in the choir loft.

Another highlight, also for low voices, was the lovely motet Ave mater matris Dei with its rising lines and  effective closing Amen.

The concert was sponsored by the Lumen Christi Institute, an organization of Catholic scholars at the University of Chicago.

Schola Antiqua’s next program is titled “Uncloistered: Sounds from the Convent.” Performances are 8 p.m. October 25 at Sacred Heart Parish in Winnetka and 3:30 p.m. October 26 at St. Clement Church in Chicago.

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