Monday, August 22, 2016

Gaude Brings a Stimulating Program of A Cappella Counterpoint to Old First Concerts

Gaude, whose name is the Latin word for “rejoice,” was founded by its Music Director Jace Wittig (formerly Interim Director of Chanticleer) about a year ago. It is an a cappella chamber ensemble consisting of only eight vocalists; and, while Wittig is responsible for repertoire and preparing the performances, he does not act as a conductor. The vocalists are sopranos Caitlin Tabancay Austin and Elizabeth Kimble, mezzo Danielle Sampson, alto Gabriela Estephanie Solis, tenors Samuel Faustine and Michael Desnoyers, baritone Matthew Peterson, and bass Clayton Moser. The group gave its debut performances in both San Jose and San Francisco in December of 2015, and yesterday afternoon Gaude made its debut in the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church.

While much of the program was centered on the Renaissance, the twentieth century was also represented through works by Herbert Howells, Francis Poulenc, Arvo Pärt, and Jan Gilbert. The “spinal cord” of the program was the “Da pacem” Mass setting originally attributed to Josquin des Prez. However, the program notes observed that recent research suggests that the actual composer may have been Josquin’s Franco-Flemish contemporary, Noel Bauldeweyn. Thanks to the Italian printer Ottaviano Petrucci, Josquin was one of the first composers to have his music published; and, as Kate van Orden observed in her book Music, Authorship, and the Book in the First Century of Print, the new age of music publication was also a new age of capitalism. Petrucci probably knew that books bearing Josquin’s name would sell better than anything by Bauldeweyn. Indeed, almost twenty years after Josquin’s death, George Foster penned the witticism that Josquin was “writing more compositions than when he was still alive.”

The title of the Mass setting comes from a Latin hymn (“Give peace, O Lord”), whose plainchant setting was used as a cantus firmus. Thus, Wittig framed the performance of Josquin’s “Kyrie” and “Gloria” movements with the incantation of the plainchant, as well as settings of this hymn by Thomas Tallis and Howells. (Howells used it as the first movement of his own approach to setting the Requiem Mass.) Later in the program Gaude sang Pärt’s setting of “Da pacem Domine” and the “Agnus Dei” portion of the Mass. The use of plainchant as cantus firmus was also illustrated by Orlande de Lassus’ eight-part setting of Salve Regina (hail holy queen) antiphon, sung in plainchant before the Lassus version.

Considering how much ground was covered by the entire program, it was impressive that the complete performance lasted only about an hour. All selections were relatively short, but they were all equally engaging. The counterpoint took in settings of from four to eight voices. Lassus and Tomás Luis de Victoria were the two “big three” Renaissance composers included. While the third, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was omitted, his absence was more than adequately compensated by the thoroughly adventurous counterpoint of Carlo Gesualdo.

However, the deepest impression probably was made by Pärt’s “Da pacem Domine” setting. Recordings cannot convey just how significant the spatial element is in Pärt’s music, particularly the a cappella vocal compositions. This is not the point-against-point writing of conventional counterpoint. The “points” are still there. However, they sustain in ways that allow them to overlap succeeding “points” in a manner that differs strikingly from the traditional suspension technique. Hence the name that Pärt has assigned to his approach is “tintinnabuli,” which is Latin for “little bells.” Sonority is all about points of attack and sustained resonance, and it is only in a performance setting that the ear can really appreciate the physical side of the separation of those points of attack.

Taken as a whole, then, the program prepared by Wittig provided not only a solid appreciation for the scope of a cappella music but an engaging exploration of connections between the pre-Classical past and the immediate present; and Gaude proved itself entirely capable to doing justice to the full scope of those connections.

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