By Robi Polgar, reprinted from The Austin Chronicle, 10/04/2002

Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Saint Mary: Songs From the Road, With Exuberance
Central Christian Church, September 28

Imagine taking a couple of days to travel to a sacred shrine. On the way, you meet fellow travelers and exchange tales of awe and mystery to help while away the hours. There are shared meals, fun and games, and plenty of music. It sounds a lot like a modern tailgate camp before a UT football game, but in the mid-13th century, the subject of everyone’s awe was the Virgin Mary, and most shrine-going travelers went on foot. The stories were about feats of superhuman occurrences — not amazing touchdown receptions, but the healing of the chronically ill or the sudden appearance of a much-needed pork chop via the blessed Virgin’s intervention. Each time Saint Mary offered her help, a story was born; and for each story was a piece of music, often a re-worded version of some popular tune or other, sung or narrated. King Alfonso X, a wise and culturally inclined monarch who ruled much of Spain at the time, took some 427 of these songs and stories and collected them into the Cantiguas de Santa Maria. Modern Houston-based music ensemble Istanpitta chose about a dozen of these and gave them a charming airing in this concert. Playing on period instruments (or instruments much like the ones the original storytellers and singers would have played) and outfitted in period costumes, the four performers played and sang their way through songs humorous and serious, all adding to the myth and reputation of Saint Mary.

The music may be Christian in its honored subject, but the influences behind the songs and stories are varied, with an obvious Islamic influence. The group’s director, Al Cofrin, plays an Arabic version of a lute — an oud — as well as the Chittara Moresca, a long-necked guitar-like instrument, also with Arabic roots. Thea Goldsby often had a vielle under her chin, a precursor of the viola or violin; Cofrin played a larger vielle that recalled the modern cello. Michael Tucker kept rhythm on tabor, but did duties on sacbut and durbeke, as well as frequently narrating in a warm baritone. Katherine Wallace appeared as special guest vocalist, a pleasant soprano, often smiling in her song.

The songs themselves were often peppered with irony or slightly bawdy humor, as in the narrated A Virgen mi groriosa where a ball player (not a UT footballer) swears everlasting love to the Virgin, only to chase after other women (no, really, not a UT footballer) before realizing his errant ways and correcting them. Another fun-filled number, Non sofre Santa Maria, had that dancing pork chop, a gift to the hungry pilgrims. The group sang together with a stuffed toy pig for visual effect. Istanpitta took such upbeat material and played it with enthusiasm and an enjoyment that filtered throughout the audience. Besides the exuberant songs, Istanpitta was equally adept at the introspective ones: Wallace sang the plaintive Mariam Matrem, offering a cooler, more reflective side to the stories of praise.

Istanpitta are regulars at the Texas Renaissance Festival, so if you missed them here, you can make a pilgrimage of your own to catch their playful and enjoyable performances.

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