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Veris Dulcis: Music of Medieval Germany

Local Arts Reviews

Reviewed by Robi Polgar, Fri., April 11, 2003

Veris Dulcis: Music of Medieval Germany: Everything But the Beer

First English Lutheran Church, March 29

On a night in the spring of 2003, the Texas Early Music Project took an Austin audience back to medieval Germany. TEMP Director Daniel Johnson guided two dozen gifted musicians and singers, including former Austinite Judith Overcash, through two works, each theatrical in its own right. The first, Hidegard von Bingen's Ordo Virtutem, was an 11th-century liturgical drama by one of history's most intriguing women. In it a lost Soul seeks help from the Virtues to break free of the Devil's clutches. Besides Overcash's splendidly sung Soul, Kathlene Ritch Brown (Knowledge of God, Discipline), Jenifer Thyssen (Hope, Mercy), Stefanie Moore (Victory), and Stephanie Prewitt (Humility) added rich textures to the simple proceedings. Ritch Brown was magnificent singing O beatissime Ruperte, an aria that was practically a tour de force by way of entry to the story. The rest of von Bingen's drama left the tension of the struggle for salvation to the text, with the music proving stately, plaintive, often ethereal, but uncomplicated to the ear. On the few occasions when polyphony was woven into the sung narrative, the piece seemed to expand aurally into something eerie and vast, recalling cavernous cathedrals with sunlight pouring through stained-glass windows.

The evening's other half was drawn from the original Carmina Burana (not to be confused with Carl Orff's 20th-century version for orchestra and vast choir). The original is a compilation of more than 200 songs and poems from 12th- and 13th-century Bavaria -- a compendium of pop songs, if you will, concerning topics like unrequited and requited love, drinking, faith, and seasonal change, in moods ranging from the sincerely moral to the rudely satirical. This night the more insulting material (of which there is a lot) was passed over in favor of 10 songs short on controversy but long on feeling.

There were a couple of rough edges about the selections -- innocuous miscues, really -- but this didn't diminish the music so much as enhance the intimacy and humanity of it all; the better-known Orff version is bombastic and leaden compared to the joyful simplicity of a few voices backed by a few period instruments in these medieval tunes. And the performers were well aware of this intimacy; whether amusedly catching themselves in their few moments of indecision or gamely getting into character as they sang, they communicated an air of camaraderie and playfulness.

The Carmina Burana celebrates life and all its foibles, and the TEMP chorus had clearly keyed into that blissful mix of moods. So there was In taberna, a drinking song, with chorus members offering toasts to practically anybody in order to continue in its drunken, witty cant; there was the charming Michi confer, venditor, in which a girl (Mary Magdalene!) buys something nice from a willing merchant so that young men will look at her "and find me pleasing," prettily sung by Amy Brumley and Kathlene Ritch Brown as Mary, and Brett Barnes and Todd Keister as the merchant; there was Daniel Johnson singing the gorgeous, plaintive love song Vacillantis trutine, followed by all six men singing another forlorn ode to love: the lovely and somber Dulce solum natalis partie.

Although Johnson seemingly prefers to eschew the limelight, it should be noted that he not only directed the event, sang, and played (psaltery) in it, he also arranged many selections, including the polyphonic passages in the von Bingen and the Carmina Burana. To their continuing credit, Johnson and TEMP have always applied a thoroughness in ensuring that a chosen work reflects the sounds of its period and that the performance of it connects strongly to the world in which the work was first played. Here they managed to turn a night of antique German song into something that felt authentic and as full of life as the time that music was born.

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