CONCERT REVIEW Nuanced Renaissance

Exsultemus Performs Works by Josquin and His Contemporaries

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Members of Exsultemus perform works by Josquin and his contemporaries on Oct. 30 in Waban, MA.
Courtesy of Exsultemus


Union Church, Waban, MA

October 30, 2009

I’m biased, of course: Despite being part of the Western canon, the music of the Renaissance somehow remains consistently foreign. It’s all there, the underpinnings that still guide sophisticated music even today — ideas on meter, or rhythm, rules guiding the structure of melodic lines, conceptions of how voices should interact with one another all exist in this fifteenth-century world, but somehow, to hear it is mysterious. Whereas concepts of thematic development, tonal resolution or structure seem to be at the center of the majority of works of the Western canon, the engine at the center of music from the Renaissance is somehow more elusive.

It is only in its sixth season, but for its brief existence, period music ensemble Exsultemus has found its own unique voice in the sea of Boston’s early music ensembles, having performed both locally and internationally in addition to their regular season, as well as on WGBH’s classical performance podcasts. Specializing in both Baroque and Renaissance music, Exsultemus presented a thoughtful consideration of the late Renaissance on Friday, October 30, focusing in on the works of Josquin des Prez and his contemporaries.

Although an attractive setting with magnificently vaulted ceilings, the nave of Waban’s Union Church presented some challenges to Friday’s concert. The music of Josquin and his contemporaries are, on the page, absurdly simple by modern standards (modern trained musicians far surpass any of the best of Josquin’s time). However, much of the challenge in performing this music today lies in achieving a balance and recreating a tuning that is sensitive to the composers assumed intent. Union Church’s fairly muffled space largely remained agnostic to the more subtle details of the resonance inherent in Renaissance acoustics. However, despite this apparent ectopia, members of the ensemble managed subtly rich blends, adorning surprisingly rich cantus firmi with elegantly nimble counterpoint.

Led by music director and countertenor Martin Near, Friday’s all-male ensemble began with works of Josquin, traversing through both liturgical and secular works. It is to the credit of the ensemble that despite their radically different uses and intentions, each work maintained a sense of immediacy and presence. The liturgical Illibeata Dei virgo nutrix and Praeter rerum seriem fluidly transitioned between surprisingly sharp turns in time signature and texture. Secular works revealed surprisingly active antiphonal sections and innovative counterpoint work that resulted in surprisingly expressive and moving works. Particularly notable was Josquin’s setting of lines from Vergil’s Aeneid, a seething description of rumor as the swiftest of all evils.

After intermission, the ensemble moved on to works by Josquin’s contemporaries, again, affording individualized interpretations for each composer and piece. While a rich tenor line of the Nicholas Gombert’s Musae, Iovis demonstrated current advances in contrapuntal writing during Josquin’s era, Arcadelt’s Laissez la verde couleur, a beautiful strophic setting of Mellin de Saint-Gelais’s poem on Venus’s mourning of Adonis. In both cases, the ensemble presented a unified thesis of the works: Although polyphonic, Gombert’s work was stately and firm; Arcadelt’s homophony was unified, yet movingly graceful in its pathos. Copious program notes provided ample explanation for the complex events of each piece.

Members of Exsultemus can all be found performing independently in various venues around Boston, from Emmanuel Music, to Boston Opera, to the Boston Microtonal Society. What a good idea, then, (and what fortune) to find them coalesce in a single ensemble not only dedicated to the intellectual understanding of ancient works, but also to the exposition of such an understanding.

Exultemus continues its 2009-10 season on Saturday, December 6 at the First Lutheran Church of Boston, performing works by Wolfgang Carl Briegel and Christoph Graupner from the court of Hesse-Darmstadt.