By Charles Ward, reprinted from The Houston Chronicle, 9/30/2002
At a time when today’s hit is tomorrow’s remainder item, the medieval music group Istanpitta explored ecstatic and humorous hits of the 13th century in its first formal concert.
A regular at the Texas Renaissance Festival, the 8-year-old ensemble dipped into famous collections of medieval songs for its entertaining program Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Saint Mary, presented Friday at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church.
The Virgin Mary had such commanding popularity in 13th-century Spain that King Alfonso X ordered his court to assemble a compilation of songs honoring her.
The resulting Cantigas de Santa Maria contained 427 works, written in Galician, that ranged from intense adulation to recitations of miracles performed by Mary for pilgrims as they traveled. A handful of these Cantigas made up the backbone of Istanpitta ‘s program.
To augment the substance and music style of its songs, director Al Cofrin added music from two other medieval collections of music, principally the one at the Benedictine Abbey at Montserrat near Barcelona.
The music came from the era when composers were making their first experiments in harmony.
In the Cantigas, melodies, sometimes simple but occasionally florid, were augmented by drones or sustained intervals. More advanced ideas appeared In a few pieces – Alle psallite cum luya (Alleluia, Sing Joyfully) from the Montpellier Codex was a sprightly, almost avant-garde three-part piece.
Such seemingly limited parameters didn’t mean the music was sterile or uninteresting.
The most sensational music of the evening was Mariam Matrem (Praise Mary, the Virgin Mary) from Montpellier. The introspective plea for protection consisted of a simple melody with an obbligato accompaniment by a vielle (a string instrument played like a violin). Through the mesmerizing singing of guest soprano Katherine Wallace, and the sensitive playing of ensemble member Thea Goldsby, Mariam Matrem was just as intensively moving as any modern work.
At the same time Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Saint Mary was filled with variety – and not just in the alternation of vocal works, narration and instrumental pieces.
Alfonso’s Spain was, to invoke a modern concept, diverse. Muslim, Jewish and Christian traditions intersected. Friday’s performance illustrated that through the internal nuances of the music – like the shape of the melodies – or instruments such as the oud, a cousin of the lute, and Moorish guitar.
Performances of the sung music were consistently high. With her lovely, light voice, the Canada-trained Wallace was a gracious communicator. Cofrin, Goldsby and Michael Tucker (percussion and sacbut) offered fluid, flexible accompaniment and lively instrumental solos.
In the narrations, Tucker and Cofrin gave humorous interpretations of Cantigas about miracles that Istanpitta translated as Gluttonous man vs. the rabbit bone and The dancing pork chop.
Using props – a stuffed small pig was most prominent – they whimsically reworked stories about a son seemingly dead because of a rabbit bone stuck in his throat and a missing cutlet that reappeared at a meal pilgrims ordered at a inn.