The Rose Ensemble highlights “Slavic Wonders”
The Rose Ensemble, of St. Paul, surveys Slavic sacred music from the 11th century to today to close Early Music Now's season.
Slavic Wonders closed Early Music Now’s season Saturday evening with a concert at the Basilica of Saint Josaphat. The ensemble, based in St Paul, brought a thoroughly researched survey of Eastern Europe’s little recognized contribution to Medieval and Early Renaissance church music.
The selections represented four Slavic traditions – Czech (Bohemian), Polish, Ukrainian and Russian. Some of the music was Eastern Orthodox, some of it was Catholic.
The music was largely sung in the vernacular rather than Latin. I’m reliably informed that the Rose Ensemble captured the languages accurately. And the words were clear in the Basilica. But most of us struggled to keep up with the annotated text, particularly the Russian Cyrillic transcribed to Roman text.
Words often mattered. The music usually supported the text. Many works celebrate the Virgin Mary. But others told of battles or the lives of martyrs adopted as saints for both sacred and patriotic reasons.
The concert opened with an 11th century Czech plainchant, Hospodine, Pomiluj Ny, featuring soprano Kathy Lee in a high solo that penetrated the hall. The men began a second plainchant, Svaty Vaclave. Written just a century later, the solo chant was supported by droning voices, and a memorable melodic refrain broke up the “verses.”
Other early chants included a recitation of the Magnificat, a central church text, and a recitative, Piesn nowa, which reflected upon a key battle in 15th century Poland. Mark Dietrich, sang this last work as a solo bass voice over a droning vielle. These atmospheric works retain a simple beauty particularly appropriate to the Basilica.
Wenceslaus, a Duke of Bohemia, murdered early in his life in the 10th century, was venerated as a saint in the 15th century in Salve pater optime. The tenors chanted the words over sustained bass lines. Vocal patterns varied to good effect within the limited palette.
A 15th century Czech work, Alme presul et beate, honored another martyr, Adelbert. This meditative work featured a flowing dynamic line. Ginna Watson accompanied the ensemble on the vielle, a predecessor to the violin. This added a drone-like tone that reverberated through the hall. The “Gloria Patri” was more upbeat than most of the earlier music presented.
Watson performed an instrumental work, Bogurodzica, that began as a slow drone, introduced two voices and built up the pace; by the end, it sounded like fiddling. A few other times, the vielle served as a basso continuo backdrop. Vielle and drum occasionally accompanied works such as Deva dnes – a Ukrainian Christmas hymn with richer harmony, open voices and a modulated rhythm often missing in these selections.
Much of the music was anonymous, but two featured composers contributed the most complex polyphonic music. Mikolaj Zielenski, a 16th-century Polish composer trained in Italy, created a Magnifat a 12 with three choirs, each with four independent voices.
Vasily Titov, a 17th century Russian composer, wrote even more complex polyphony. The Rose Ensemble performed two of his 12-part works, with individual voices, duets and trios weaving in and out of the rich texture. Dostoyno yest featured increasingly faster pacing and a joyful mood in a composition full of twists and turns.
Each program half closed with more upbeat music – a Ukrainian Christmas carol and full-voice Ukrainian choral music with tonal inflections and bright enthusiasm. This unique vocal sound has become familiar in the United States through Balkan choir tours.
As an encore, the ensemble selected recently written “17th century” music, Bogoroditse Devo, Raduysia (Rejoice, O Virgin Mary), by a Byelo-Russian expatriate Sergey Khvoshchinskiy (b. 1957), now living in Minneapolis. (You can sample it at the middle of this page.) Although the harmonies are somewhat broader, and solo voices more prominent, this work is very similar to Vasily Titov’s 17th-century compositions.
The nearly full house did not seem to focus on the lesson in musical history. The Rose Ensemble finds beauty in all of these works. Meditative chants, complex polyphony, cheerful carols and full voice choral songs were all performed with balance and precision. And they all seemed to fit the space – perhaps because the ensemble took care to pace the music to avoid acoustic issues, but also because most of the music was also written for just such a space.
The Rose Ensemble comprises Jordan Sramek, Founder/Artistic Director (tenor, percussion) Jolle Greenleaf, Kathy Lee, Kim Sueoka (soprano) ♦ Lisa Drew, Linda Kachelmeier, Kris Kautzman (alto) Nicholas Chalmers, Andrew Kane (tenor) ♦ Mark Dietrich, Daniel Mahraun, Jonathan Ten Brink (bass) and Ginna Watson (vielle, psaltery)
Most of the music in the evening’s concert is available in two CD’s produced by the Rose Ensemble – Slavic Holiday (notes and content) and Fire of the Soul (notes and content).
Early Music Now will continue their tradition of bringing the best of Early Music groups to Milwaukee in their 27th Season beginning next October. Concert details are available online.