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ISSUE 119 VOL 9 PUBLISHED 11/18/2005

Ethereal English early music

By Levi Comstock
Contributing Writers

Friday, November 18, 2005

Over 500 years ago, Renaissance scholar Giannozzo Manetti heard a concert that sounded to him “as though the symphonies and songs of the angels … had been sent forth from the heavens to whisper in our ears an unbelievable celestial sweetness.”

On Friday, those same angels were whispering in Urness Recital Hall, in the guise of the St. Olaf Early Music Singers and Collegium Musicum.

Under the direction of Professor of Music History Gerald Hoekstra, the 15 singers and 13 instrumentalists performed a smorgasbord of English renaissance music, from the sacred “Magnificat” of Robert Fayrfax to the sprightly “Golliards” of William Byrd.

The musicians approached the historic repertoire with a vitality and sincerity that allowed the audience to experience the “celestial sweetness” that can only be found in the pure harmonies and gentle counterpoint of early music.

The Early Music Singers opened the concert with a series of sacred songs, demonstrating a truly satisfying vocal blend. The sopranos melted into the top of the texture with a crystalline tone, and each cadence shone with the radiance of perfectly tuned fifths.

This year marks the five-hundred-year anniversary of the birth of composer Thomas Tallis, and in honor of that Early Music Singers performed a small set of his motets and anthems.

Tallis was among the leading composers of English sacred song during the 16th century, and he helped to bring imitative polyphony into vogue in England.

The a capella portion of the program was followed by the dulcet instrumental strains of viols, recorders, cornets and sackbuts lusciously ornamenting the popular madrigals and dance music of the Renaissance era. The Renaissance instruments have softer tones than their modern equivalents, with less dynamic range than the post-romantic listener is accustomed to.

Collegium Musicum, instead of using the usual dynamic gestures, drew out the music’s textural and rhythmic contrasts with such supple grace that one could not help but be engaged by the intertwining parts.

A highlight of the concert came when Collegium Musicum and Early Music Singers joined forces for “This is the Record of John,” a piece for tenor soloist, chorus and viol consort, featuring tenor and Admissions Counselor Josh Grau.

Many of the students in the early music ensembles are active in other bands, orchestras or choirs at St. Olaf. They share a love for early music repertoire and a concern for the authentic performance practices of the Renaissance era.

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