Sunday, May 27, 2012

concert review: Ensemble SPAM

I picked up on this medieval music concert because it advertised itself as "Top hit songs and dances of 13th and 14th century France and Italy," and I knew it was something B. would enjoy and thus provide us an opportunity to attend together.

The group's arrestingly-silly name encodes the first initials of its four members.* Had I immediately recognized the name of the M, Marsha Genensky, as one of the members of Anonymous 4, I would have rushed to get tickets even faster than I did. For the now-only-occasionally active Anonymous 4 are the ne plus ultra of this period of music, and none of its members, I was sure, would collaborate with anybody else who wasn't also top-notch.

Nor did she. Marsha, as I'd better call her to keep the initialism up, sang with Allison Zelles Lloyd, their sopranos of differing timbres interweaving mesmerizingly in two-part ballatas by Francesco Landini, definitely the capo of the evening's composers. Instrumental accompaniment was well-balanced to the voices, and was provided by vielle (a droning string instrument resembling a cross between a violin and viola, to both of which it's ancestral) from Shira Kammen and soft and intricate hand-drum work from percussionist Peter Maund. Allison played harp on some pieces and Shira sang when a third vocal line was needed.

The program, played in sets by country and period, ranged across the ars antiqua (Montpellier and Bamberg codices, Adam de la Halle - OK, I've heard of those) and ars nova (Machaut, Dufay, Gherardello da Firenze and others joining Landini). The starkness of the ars antiqua and the richer elaboration of the ars nova floated in a dry clear sound across the warm, wood-paneled, flat-floored St. Bede's Church tucked in among the venture capital firms on Sand Hill. (A much better venue than the concrete All Saints in Palo Alto, and about equal to Valley Presbyterian in Portola Valley, as squarish or circular churches in the area without high altars go.)

Besides the fact that the group hasn't issued any recordings yet - though some by its members were for sale afterwards, and we got one - the only flaw in the evening was the woman who came and sat right behind us and began talking loudly, unceasingly, and unignorably to her companion about some other friend's hydrocephalic fetus and other equally personal topics and did not stop for breath until the concert began. We'd come early for good seats or I would have moved. This is what the term TMI was coined to describe. It's not just talkers on cell phones who impose themselves unwittingly on their neighbors.

*B. points out that they could just as easily have been Ensemble MAPS or even Ensemble AMPS. Their seating arrangement was as Ensemble MASP. There was a reception afterwards, but no Spam was served.

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