Alba Consort opens intimate window on the past at Logan Center

Sat Jan 31, 2015 at 12:15 pm

By Tim Sawyier

The Alba Consort performed Friday night at the Logan Center.
The Alba Consort performed Friday night at the Logan Center.

The University of Chicago Presents series hosted the Alba Consort Friday night at the Logan Center for the Arts in a recital entitled “Earthly Love, Divine Love.” The program was comprised of secular and religious love songs from the medieval and Renaissance Mediterranean world—repertoire that has earned the four-member, period-instrument ensemble significant international attention.

The evening opened with “Al Alba Venid,” a sixteenth-century song by an anonymous composer. The word “alba”—from which the ensemble takes its name—can mean either “white” or “the white light of dawn,” and also refers to a genre of troubadour love song, the lyrics of which are usually the words of a lover to his mate in the pre-dawn hours. The Consort set the tone for the evening in this brief work, vocalist and artistic director Margo Gezairlian Grib singing the affecting ballad with effortlessly pure intonation.

The program continued with two selections from the Cantigas de Santa Maria from the court of Spanish King Alfonso X (1221-1284), separated by two offerings from thirteenth-century Galician composer Martin Codax. In the “Cantigas” percussionist Rex Benincasa joined vocal forces with Grib, and while the pulsating rhythms of his accompaniment on various instruments were undulating and hypnotic, the contrast between the under-developed quality of his voice and Grib’s more operatically trained timbre was jarring. Grib’s singing in the Codax numbers was sultry and languid, evocative of the seacoast of the composer’s (probably) native Vigo. The second of the Codax songs, “Mia Irmana,” also afforded the audience a rare opportunity to hear the hurdy-gurdy (an instrument that produces sound via a crank-turned rosined wheel rubbing against strings), which Benincasa handled deftly.

This block of works was followed by an anonymous Cypriot ballad, “En vous amer,” the melismatic vocal lines of which Grib spun out artfully, and which lutenist Christopher Morrongiello followed with a charming solo “Pavanas” by Gaspar Sanz. Other highlights of the first half were Carlo Valte’s rhapsodic oud (a lute-like instrument) solo that introduced the traditional yet exotic-sounding Arabic song “Lama Bada,” and its instrumental finale, “La Menredina, La Rotta della Manfredina” (a pair of dances) which showcased a scintillating darbouka (goblet drum) solo from Benincasa that sounded like Tito Puente had landed in fourteenth-century Tuscany.

The second half opened with two solo lute offerings from Morrongiello. The stately “Spagna seconda” from the Capirola Lutebook was performed with lonely poignancy, and Joan Ambrosio Dalza’s “Calata ala spagnola” had a mesmerizing, flowing quality. Two traditional Armenian selections—“Anoush Karoun” and “Melodie Andalusian”—featured more oud virtuosity from Valte, leading up to the evening’s most impressive single number, Guillaume Dufay’s “La Belle Se Siet.” This selection’s impressive vocal writing, intricate instrumental lines, and passionate imagery justified its composer probably being the only one whose name anyone in the audience might have heard previously. “Maria Matrem,” by another anonymous composer, was intelligently adorned with solemn isolated strikes from suspended bells, and the program came to a close with three engaging Sephardic songs from Andalusia. Alba’s encore, a song about an insane general named Rodrigo Martinez, who thought geese were cows, ended the evening on a light note.

The performance was certainly an academic accomplishment—fitting for its university setting—with vast and extensive research required to (re)construct such early works and execute them as persuasively as Alba did. While the ensemble’s overall range of dynamics and timbre is limited by its instrumentation, this seeming limitation served the concert well, simplifying the sonic landscape, and bringing the contrasting harmonic idioms of the various regions vividly to life.

The University of Chicago Presents continues February 6 at Mandel Hall with a recital by violinist Stefan Jackiw and pianist Anna Polonsky featuring works of Ravel, Saariaho, Lutoslawski, and Frank.

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