On not a few chilly afternoons, I've been poking around in the dirt for the hopeful signs of daffodil shoots, and so the offering of "A Thousand Flowers" by Bella Voce at Grace Episcopal Church last Saturday (temperature 29 degrees) was a happy prospect.
Bella Voce, Latin for "with a beautiful voice," has been offering a cappella music in the Chicago area for nearly 25 years and is under the artistic direction of its founder, Anne Heider. Their repertoire is eclectic, and for "A Thousand Flowers" the selections from various eras were all connected through the image of ornate Flemish tapestries of the Renaissance.
Imagine sounds as vivid as stained glass, lit by the sun and woven into scenes of hunts, orchards and fountains with prancing damsels framed by spritely does and winding vines. If you look closely amid the "thousand flowers," as art historians have named this style, you might even spy a unicorn or two.
Inspired by the tapestries from Flanders and northern France, Bella Voce's thoughtful programming interposed Debussy's settings of texts by the French Renaissance poet Charles d'Orléans and R. Murray Schafer's clever 20th-century work, "The Unicorn," with several varieties of Renaissance vocal music. Renaissance artists universally observed the given parameters for strictly-prescribed genres, such as mass, hymn or chanson, all of which were featured on Saturday's program. Within the sameness and predictability of these forms, however, is where a composer's individual grace and style could be displayed.
The real star of evening was the Missa Ave maris stella by Josquin des Prez, arguably the greatest living composer in early 16th-century Europe. Josquin's early years were passed in Tournai, a center of French tapestry production, begging the apt comparison of his highly complex multi-part vocal music with the threads and colors of the region's artwork.
Josquin composed the Missa (mass) on the standard five movements of the Roman Catholic mass, weaving the melody of the old hymn, "Ave maris stella," (Hail, Mary, star of the sea) into new musical fabric for four voice parts. "Star of the sea" was a common metaphor for the Virgin Mary. Bella Voce's clear and accurate interpretation of this sacred repertoire ably fulfilled its original intent, which, like the architecture of grand cathedrals where it was sung, was to transport the listener into a divine and mysterious world that humans couldn't completely understand. As I listened to the intricate and ethereal sounds, sung so effortlessly, I began to reflect on the immensity of the sky and the celestial effect of music that sang of the gate of heaven.
Indeed, hearing Renaissance vocal music is much like stargazing. Even a child can be carried away by the sheer impact of the enormous vault of the sky, without knowing how stars produce light or how long they burn before they die. The wash of sounds of interwoven voices can wow a listener who knows nothing of Josquin's artful treatment of melody and imitation or the mind-numbing system Renaissance musicians used to measure time.
Among the secular selections, the male voices, resonating brilliantly, gave a particularly strong performance of Pierre de la Rue's chanson, asking the love-struck question, "Why may I not wish to die, when I love one who does not love me?" Kristina Pappademos shone as the soloist in Debussy's "When I heard the tambourine," while the other 15 singers provided a convincing tambourine back-up. And the soprano sighs in Schafer's Unicorn brought rave applause.
The evening was capped off with an entertaining encore--a perfect rendering of Josquin's jaunty El Grillo (The Cricket). Who needs television when flowers and stars and lovely sonority, and even unicorns, can be had under Heider's careful direction in the soaring space of Grace Church? Perhaps I hear that cricket singing amid my daffodil shoots even now.