REVIEW: Historical Performance Institute Enthralls IU Museum Audience

Early music fans given much to enjoy at Sunday showcase

It was a fascinating showcase on Sunday afternoon, and in a venue that of late has welcomed too few musical events. Gathered on the second level of the atrium in the Indiana University Art Museum were avid fans of early music who came to hear ensembles from the Jacobs School’s Historical Performance Institute, formerly the Early Music Institute.

Prepared to perform were the various ensembles that exist under the label Concentus: Voices, Renaissance Winds, Renaissance Viols, Renaissance Trombones and Plucked Strings. So, too, at the ready was the Baroque Orchestra and its conductor Stanley Ritchie, who had just been informed of being raised to the level of distinguished professor, the highest honor that an IU faculty member can get (and congratulations to him!).

What awaited us, the audience, was a program called “Gilding the Lilly,” an event designed to celebrate a current Lilly Library exhibit, “The Performative Book from Medieval Europe to the Americas.” More specifically, the concert recognized receipt of a medieval manuscript containing a chant donated to the Lilly by the widow of Thomas Binkley, revered founding director of the Early Music Institute. And to top that, Wendy Gillespie, the institute’s chairwoman, called upon faculty composer Don Freund to contribute a work of his making for the various performing musicians.

One heard first various Concentus groups performing chants and chant-influenced pieces by a series of 15th- and 16th-century composers. A few, such as Tomas Luis de Victoria, William Byrd, Heinrich Isaac and Orlando di Lassus, are familiar names. Others — like Francisco Guerrero, Antoine Brumel, Costanzo Festa, Peter Philips and Alfonso Ferrabosco —are less likely to be recognized. But their music, as chosen for the program, often fell radiant on the ears. The performers, instrumental and vocal, were superb in navigating through the musical challenges. And when the Voices glorified their selections under the guidance of Dana Marsh, coordinator at the institute and specialist in early music voice, one sometimes turned breathless, so lovely were the sounds produced.

The newly tapped distinguished professor, Stanley Ritchie, then took over, using the Baroque Orchestra and the Concentus Voices for a sumptuous reading of later music, Antonio Vivaldi’s Magnificat in G Minor, written in the early 18th century. It is a stunning work, Vivaldi at his melodic and emotionally strongest. Orchestra and vocal soloists matched the music in quality; the result was a pleasure to experience.

Don Freund’s “Discubuit Jesus,” scored for orchestra (the Baroque in reduced number), Concentus instrumentalists, and five vocal soloists, ended the program. The piece served as aural time travel, switching the dominant theme, a chant, through passages for voice, for the Renaissance ensembles with their instruments of long ago vintage, and for the Baroque Orchestra strings. The music swung back and forth from one grouping to another, dramatically and yet comfortably, too. Freund’s grasp of the various period sounds was phenomenal. He gave the musicians an enticing and engaging assignment and the listeners an enticing and engaging listen-to.

Reaction to “Discubuit Jesus” and to the rest of the program sounded enthusiastic. Ovations were warm and, at the end, extensive, just what the performers deserved.

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