The cultivation of skill and diffusion of taste in music

Variety Hour in the Siglo de Oro

Posted By Randall Couch on Mar 6th, 2017 in

Piffaro, Philadelphia’s renaissance band, is spending the season in Spain. Last weekend’s program bore the title—appropriately for the month of San Valentín, in which falls the Día de los Enamorados—of ¡Ay, Amor!

Assembled by Piffaro’s Christa Patton with Damon Bonetti of the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective theatrical company, the show evoked the early zarzuela, a popular mixture of spoken dramatic verse, accompanied song, and dance. Felipe IV’s hunting lodge was known as La Zarzuela, for the zarzas or brambles surrounding it; his frequent hosting there of receptions featuring this type of musical theater lent the genre its name, which eventually came to be used for any jumble of things including a delicious mixed-seafood stew.

The evening’s through-line came from an old ballad (romance viejo) in which la bella Celia confesses to her priest that she has broken all ten commandments for love—and where, and how, and that she would do it again. Though the chords for this ballad survive, the melody does not, so Piffaro’s Grant Herreid composed an entirely convincing reconstruction.

Interspersed among sung verses of the ballad, a variety of late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish musical forms were performed along with short scenes and monologues (largely in translation) from the great dramatists of the age. These were chosen, as were the musical pieces, to resonate with the situations or emotions depicted in the ballad’s narrative, and played with sonorous gusto by actors J Hernandez and Amanda Robles.

Julianne Baird and Drew Minter, who need no introduction to MFS members, sang the principal solos and duets. The unique blend of Ms. Baird’s crystalline soprano with the unusually rich timbre of Mr. Minter’s countertenor was an unanticipated pleasure.

Fans of this repertoire would have recognized a number of the musical choices including the anonymous pavane and galliard “La Batalla,” several selections from Torrejón y Velasco’s early opera La Púrpura de la Rosa and Santiago de Murcia’s “Marizápolos” among others. The latter features in the landmark recording Missa Mexicana by the Harp Consort, who have also recorded the opera.

While Piffaro’s research and scholarship are quite serious, their performances exude brio—or perhaps in this context one should say vivacidad. This was a crowd-pleasing program, and no accident. Near the end of one of Priscilla Smith Herreid’s soaring, virtuosic soprano recorder solos, Mr. Hernandez stole up from behind, snatched her music stand, and carried it stage left to join the rest of the woodwinds, while Ms. Herreid, eyebrows hoisted in mock alarm, scurried along in pursuit, fingers flying. Of course, this bit of business fazed her not one whit. Maybe it was a little corny, but typical of Piffaro’s determination that old music should not feel dull and dusty.

Mention should also be made of guitarist Charles Weaver, whose solo diferencias on “Marizápolos” played on a double-strung early guitar in lute tuning were breathtaking. By the final variation he had traversed an impressive range of styles and conjured the illusion that he was playing glissandos on a very large harp.

Philadelphia is lucky to have and to draw musicians of this caliber for what is still relatively underappreciated repertory. If you know a young person who thinks that art music is all about plutocrats snoozing to the sonic dreams of boring dead white dudes, send them to a Piffaro concert. It’ll be fun.

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