In Celebration of the Season
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Tydings Trew: Feasts of Christmas in Medieval England
Lionheart: Lawrence Lipnik (countertenor), John Olund, Michael Wenger (tenors), Jeffrey Johnson, Richard Porterfield (baritones), Kurt-Owen Richards (bass)
Lionheart (© Jim Allen)
When there is a concert in the Medieval Sculpture Hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, just getting to the venue is an aesthetic experience. To progress from the frigid frenzy of a pre-Christmas New York City evening into the timeless warmth of relics of the middle ages is to be transported back in time. As we made our way down a corridor lined with exquisite Ottonian ivories, hundreds of years seemed to vanish without a trace. Just through the grand archway stands the magnificent ciborium, a twelfth century altar canopy from Rome. Walking on, we were surrounded by sculpture mostly French, also dating from the twelfth century. And then came the view that never fails to take one’s breath away – the Museum’s majestic Christmas tree with its Neapolitan baroque ornaments and crèche.
As we took our seats, we were flanked by lovingly rendered statues of the virgin and child. It is always touching to be in their company, but never more so than when attending a program of music celebrating the birth of the Christ child. The setting unified the aural with the visual experience in a way that, year after year, never ceases to impress.
Lionheart, an all male vocal sextet, has been putting on Christmas programs at the Metropolitan Museum for some time. This season’s program was organized around the twelve days of Christmas, running from the nativity on December 25th to the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th. Some selections were in English; others were in Latin. Many of the former – such as the familiar and rhythmically varied “Nowell Nowell”, the first words of which gave the program its title – have a simple charm and a popular feel. “Nowell” has an ingratiating monophonic melody and infectious rhythms. Other selections, such as the eloquent “Ecce quod natura”, betray the skill of a musically and theologically sophisticated composer.
The group is scholarly scrupulous as well as talented and resourceful. It’s quite an achievement just how well only six people can produce such an extraordinary variety of colors, dynamics and textures. Throughout the program, their voices blended exquisitely. Yet, out of a choral texture, individual voices emerged to great effect. The singers were aided immeasurably by the Sculpture Hall’s space, which they used in a highly creative fashion, both in their comings and goings and their groupings during the program. They arranged themselves in two groups of three and, for the stunning canticle, “Benedicite omnia opera domini domino” the soloist was on our left, and his colleagues, forming a chorus of five, on our right.
The program began with an ethereally beautiful solemn chant: “A solis ortus cardine”, which told the story of the incarnation and the birth of the Christ child. In their excellent program notes, we were told that two motets, the splendid “Nesciens mater” and “Venter tuus” were taken from the Old Hall Manuscript, a collection of 14th and 15th century English sacred polyphony. Both are examples of English discant – two parts in counterpoint sung above a given melody. And both were beautifully performed. Another highlight was “Lully lulla”, which tells of the massacre of the holy innocents. Lionheart sang with utmost delicacy, particularly in their word painting of “little tiny child”. Their varied dynamic palette was subtly employed to great effect.
The last selection was the canticle “Nunc dimittis”, sung as they processed up the aisle, mirroring our own journey into the hall. Their slowly receding voices evoked both the text’s description of the servants of the Lord going to their rest and prepared us for our own journey back into the world outside. They returned for an encore – “In The Bleak Midwinter”. A poor man wants to give a gift to the Christ child. With nothing else to offer, he gives his heart. It was a splendid way to end a wonderful evening.
Arlene Judith Klotzko