Monday, March 16, 2020

Review: Ensemble Graindelavoix at The Met Cloisters

WHO: Ensemble Graindelavoix; Björn Schmelzer, director
WHAT: JOSQUIN Stabat mater; BROWNE Salve regina; OBRECHT Salve regina à 6; ASHWELL "Sanctus" and "Agnus Dei" from Missa Ave Maria
WHERE: Fuentidueña Chapel at The Met Cloisters
WHEN: March 7, 2020 at 3pm

What a week it's been.

I try to be an optimist when I can. So, when the Yale Glee Club's tour got canceled two hours before we were supposed to leave, I decided I'd hop down into NYC and see a couple weeks of concerts instead. Foolproof, right?

Well, I only got to three concerts before all my other tickets started getting canceled. So now I'm back in my apartment in New Haven, leaving only to make apocalyptica runs to Trader Joe's or to take long, brooding walks with friends (maintaining a distance of six feet, of course). Sigh.

But hey, more time for writing, I guess? Optimism!

Whoever curates The Cloisters' live arts series deserves a medal. I've now seen four concerts this year in the Fuentidueña Chapel, and each one has left me significantly happier than when I sat down. This one was no different. Despite the surgical-mask-clad couple next to me and the stenches of hand sanitizer and hysteria in the air, Graindelavoix provided a perfect, hour-long vacation.

And it was after-hours on a Friday too. Meryl, if you're reading this, you're a saint.
I consume a lot of Renaissance polyphony -- it's my go-to stress relief music. Each ensemble has their signature sound. Tenebrae has wobbly basses. Voces8 has no vibrato at all (AT ALL). Vox Luminis has a distinctive ensemble crescendo (it's freaky how together they are).

Grandelavoix's hallmark seems to be a heftier take on polyphony. Tempos are majestically slow (not to be confused with boring), and the singers have this sinewy, almost buzzy tone that highlights harmonic clashes. Everything is prone to ebb and flow; the tempo stretches like taffy, then slowly regains its shape. The singers each add their own ornaments into the music, almost reminiscent of traditional folk polyphonies of Corsica or Sardinia.

Conductor Björn Schmelzer's degrees are not in conducting, but rather in musicology and anthropology. His interpretations stem from interdisciplinary approaches to music, clearly well-informed by early modern history as well as medieval vocal traditions. Merely a catalyst for an ensemble that clearly trusts each other, his large gesture pulls musicality from the ensemble like a stubborn cork from a wine bottle.

God, I'm in a metaphorical mood today. Gotta let the imagination run wild when you're inside all day, I suppose.

Anyway, I get the sense that Graindelavoix doesn't make it stateside so often, but if they're near you I'd recommend you go. In the meanwhile, they have many fabulous albums -- the one that I listened to on the way back downtown was Byzantine chant and 13th-century antiphons from the Codex Cyprus, one of few medieval manuscripts surviving the French court in Nicosia, Cyprus. And, according to one of their countertenors (s/o Andrew for chatting with me for like 20min), there's a new Josquin album dropping next year to celebrate 600 years since his death. Take that, #Beethoven250!

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