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Nice Medievali Girls Like To Have Fu-un!

New York
St Mary The Virgin Church
02/14/2009 -  
Miller Theatre presents “Songs of Love, Lust and Lamentation”
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina: Adiuro vos, filiae Hierussalem
John Forest: Qualis est dilectus
Jacobus Clemens non Papa: Ego flos campi
Orlando Gibbons: Songs of Songs Settings (Selected verses)
Thomas Crequillon: Lamentations I , Lamentations II
Peter Cornelius: Requiem
Pierre Certon: Je ne fus jamais si aise
Anonymous: Adieu, adieu la seignore; J’aie bien frique
Nicolas Payen: Hau de par Dieu
Jacobus Clemens non Papa and Orlande de Lassus: Entre vous filles/Kyrie from Missa Entre vous filles
Herbert Howells: Sweetest of Sweets
Claudin de Sermisy: O Doulce amour
Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur ”Epithalame” from Le Cantique des Cantiques

Vox Vocal Ensemble, George Steel (Conductor)

The Vox vocal ensemble (© Hiroyuki Ito)

The halcyon moment of this most unusual song bouquet was a two-section chanson. The first song, Entre vous filles by Clemens non Papa was a delicious tribute to lascivious 15-year-old girls with “hungry eyes, teats pert, pussies soft”. Immediately after that was the same song injected into a mass by his contemporary, Orlande de Lassus, as the Kyrie, pleading “Lord, Christ have mercy.”

This dichotomy was anything but heretical to the anything but prudish 16th Century parishioners. It was simply a Parody Mass, where popular music was used as the basis for a religious service (and the beginning of serious non-religious music). But when George Steel puts together a program of vocal music, it is anything but probable.

Conductor Steel is known for his most improbable combinations, mainly contrasting the medieval with the relatively modern. Except that “contrast” here would be the wrong word. After all, the “exoticisms” and modulations of the 16th Century are stranger than the gentle little minor dissionances of Englishman Herbert Howells. The sexy songs of the 16th Century, with their lubricious language of love, are no more prurient than your ordinary hip-hop (if less violent).

But Mr. Steel made certain that in a pretty serious program in a very stolid French Gothic church, nobody would fall asleep. His 17-person choir (an extra tenor) sung in trios, sextets and with all 17 voices, ringing through the entire edifice. He couldn’t duplicate the boy sopranos of medieval times, but two of the tenors reached the high notes without falsettos. And Mr. Steel’s graphic conducting made certain that every isorhythmic beat was sculpted as well as defined.

In a 90-minute program of 20 works, some surprises were inevitable. The 16th Century’s Thomas Crequillon wrote two sets from Jeremiah’s Lamentations which were as emotionally powerful as the Biblical poetry itself, his extended melismas on a word like “Zion” almost piercingly vivid. Before that, London’s Orlando Gibbons had three hymns, each sung with a different consort: first high, then low, and finally both choirs making a very warm sound.

Finally, among the religious songs, Peter Cornelius—who is vaguely familiar as the author of a carol called “The Three Kings”—set a poem called Requiem, with very Schumanesque feelings and harmonies.

These numbers were in the first half classified “The Song of Songs” and “Lamentations.” The second half started with five “Ribald Chansons”, taxing the contrapuntal skills of the Vox Vocal Ensemble, as well as the kind of intimations which no decent Episcopal Church-goers should be allowed to hear. (Nobody walked out, not even with a verse set by Nicolas Payen that goes: “Lift the front of your skirt high, for the love of God…Your cun…your cun…your companion cries out to play push-me pull-you.” )

(The French original is just as fetching!)

One of the charms of the program is that Paul Griffiths, the dean of annotators, was commissioned by Columbia’s Miller Theatre to write about the songs. He wrote little about the techniques of the music, but did understand the meaning of these secular numbers: “Carnal pleasure,” he wrote, “can be a metaphor for spiritual grace, or it can be, well, just carnal pleasure……allowing for double (or triple) entendre.”

All was in the spirit of good Valentine’s Day Fun. Like the better known Orff Medieval cantata, these later numbers mixed sexual attraction, sexual fulfillment and joy without embarrassment, and with plenty of (as the French text says,) ”jouer de pouseavant.”

The Vox Vocal Ensemble didn’t have to push and pull. Their music had charms which sung for themselves.

Harry Rolnick



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