This past Sunday I went to go hear Convivium Musicum perform their program "Armada," and since they gave me a comp, they get a review!*
I was hardly an objective observer of this group; I got to substitute-direct a rehearsal for them towards the end of April. But it was very pleasant indeed to be able to sit back and enjoy the skill of this admirable ensemble.
The programming was very strong; it was all music on the subject of war that would have been performed around the time of the Spanish Armada. One detail that warmed this music geek's heart was the fact that four of the five mass movements they performed were based on the Janequin chanson "La Guerre," something that was very interesting to listen for. I also especially enjoyed the music of Guerrero, who is a composer I was unfamiliar with and whose work is surprisingly beautiful. But what really made this program extraordinary was the use of text in between each musical number. Anney Gillotte, a former member of the group (full disclosure: also a close friend! told you I wasn't objective) put together a really remarkable story-telling of the Spanish Armada, complete with fascinating source texts. Conductor Michael Barrett read the connecting storyline of the historical event, but various chorus members stepped out to read letters and speeches from the major players, which added a real level of drama to the proceedings. Normally I am not that interested in lecture-concerts, but this worked terrifically; partly perhaps I didn't know any of the details of this particular historical episode, and the plot was really quite gripping! The music worked extremely well to tell the story as well, especially in the second half of the concert, when the dramatic tension ramped up. So bravo to everyone for creating such a notably fascinating concert.
Technically, of course, one is always in good hands with Convivium Musicum. The balance was very good, although I could wish for a more robust sound from the sopranos; it's very clean, but I would love to hear them feel free to soar a little more. My major issue with this concert was the acoustics - Grace Episcopal Church in Salem is extremely dry, and it would have been much more satisfying to hear the concert in a wetter room. Luckily, Convivium did not need a forgiving space; there were only a few tuning mistakes, quickly resolved, and their solidity of tempo and rhythm was really excellent. I am always telling my choirs that they must take responsibility for the rhythmic integrity of the piece themselves; hearing Convivium nail every tempo together was a joy. They clearly were all moving together as one, and had the same ideas about their momentum with director Michael Barrett never needing to dictate anything, only to shape. I remember the point at which I was listening to an old choral recording of myself, and realized that although the tuning was solid, the performance was second-rate because the choir was not moving crisply in rhythm together. That was when I realized that all first-rate choirs have excellent rhythm; and this is particularly true of Convivium.
But technical aspects are not why we go to concerts. We want things to be interesting! And between good programming, and wonderful texts, and every singer's face up and out and communicating, this was absolutely a very interesting and enjoyable concert. Kudos to Convivium!
*peers over the rim of my glasses at Cantata Singers, BEMF, Celebrity Series Boston...hint, hint!