By Glenn A. Gentry, The Continuo, January 2007

Istanpitta at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, January 20, 2007

Istanpitta, based in Austin, TX, is a group of five instrumentalists, two of whom also sing and narrate. They presented a French medieval version of the legend of the lovers Tristan and Isolde, in narration interspersed with song and instrumental pieces. In short, King Mark of Cornwall sends his nephew Tristan to Ireland to fetch him a bride, Isolde. Tristan and Isolde fall helplessly and hopelessly in love, but in the end Isolde does marry King Mark, although one subsequent brief encounter between her and Tristan is described. The members of Istanpitta are Al Colfrin (Director, lute, bagpipes, vielle), Daniel Johnson (voice, psaltery, narration), Ginna Watson (vielle), Theresa Honey (medieval harp), and Abby Green (percussion, voice, narration). The program began with a bagpipe piece which showed a strong Arab influence, with a highly ornamented melody. Bagpipes came originally from the Middle East, and were adapted by different peoples, arriving finally in Scotland, where they evolved into the modern instrument. Those played by Cofrin had a single drone (Scots pipes have three) and a chanter. Like the bagpipes, many of the other instruments used also had an earlier Middle Eastern origin. Perhaps the best-known was the oud, which evolved into the lute as it moved to the West. Two vielles (members of the viol family) were used, a slightly smaller one with five strings was played “da braccio”, that is, on the arm like the modern violin, and the other “da gamba”, vertically, like the modern ‘cello. At one point the rebec was played, a very small bowed instrument (like the violin) with a pear-shaped body (resembling the lute). Again, this instrument came to the West from Arabia. The harp served as a “continuo”, providing accompaniment for the various vocal solos (along with the psaltery, a plucked string instrument reminiscent of the modern zither).

While all the various pieces were compelling, two made an especially strong impression on me. The first was the beginning bagpipe solo, mentioned above, and the other, near the end, was an improvisation by the two vielles on the subject “The lovers depart” (Isolde goes back to King Mark and Tristan returns in exile to his native Wales). Technically there was considerable imitation between the two vielles, and each took turns being the drone while the other played varied slow melodies. Emotionally, it was some of the most expressive music of the evening, infused with sadness.

The Mississippi Academy of Ancient Music has scored again, with this wonderful presentation which was greatly appreciated by the unusually large and enthusiastic audience.

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