Review of the Orlando Consort at Wesleyan University’s Memorial Chapel

Program: Selections from Guillaume de Machaut’s Le Voir Dit, Dufay, Dunstaple, Gombert, Josquin des Prez, Ockeghem.

On February 28th at Wesleyan University, the Orlando Consort, preeminent recording artists specializing in music of the 9th to 16th centuries, presented a two-part musical program. The concert was co-sponsored by the Thomas and Catharine McMahon Fund, the Wesleyan University Departments of Medieval Studies, Music, Romance Languages and Literature, as well as the College of Letters and the Center for the Arts of Wesleyan University. The program celebrated 25 years of the Consort and highlighted the group's most popular repertoire of Renaissance polyphony, as well as their latest project, in which they are recording the complete polyphonic works of Guillaume de Machaut--which will be the first  complete collection of recordings.  The first half of the concert program anticipated this project, while the second half was a retrospective of over two decades of of repertoire. This review focuses on the performance of Machaut, who is of particular interest to me as a student in the Graduate Seminar on “The Medieval Lyric,” taught by Professor Ardis Butterfield at Yale University.

In the first half of the concert, the Orlando Consort performed selections from Le Voir Dit of Guillaume de Machaut. Their first CD of the first ever collection of the complete works of Machaut is to be released by Hyperion records this September. The ensemble’s showmanship was exemplary; a different singer introduced each piece with a short passage from the narrative of Le Voir Dit that put each piece in context. The choice to select pieces with varying voice number and types was especially wise, given the potential for monotony inherent in a program of a single composer’s works. The sole monophonic work seemed especially fresh after a series of three-part pieces: its syllabic quality was striking in this context and its narrativity was palpable. The largest audience response came just at the end of the first half, when the four singers sang together for the first time. As Mark Dobel, tenor, noted after the performance, the initial audience response to this music is always a gradual one as audience members struggle to make sense of a musical style many have never experienced before. At Wesleyan, the climax of appreciation coincided with the final selection in the first half chosen to display maximum complexity and increased resonance. Taking a very smooth, pure approach and resolving every dissonance with finesse, the Consort performed Machaut with a luminosity very much evoking stained glass windows and Solemnes’ Gregorian Chant.

Known for collaborating and consulting with musicologists, the Orlando Consort described some of the issues in interpreting and bringing this music and text to performance in our conversation after the show.  I had observed that they seemed freer in looking up from their music in the second half, when performing their Renaissance repertoire.  They had just recorded the first volume of their Machaut project, and were relying on heavily annotated photocopies of the Machaut they had compiled themselves, working from the most recent scholarship.  Apparently, in the time elapsing between the first and second CDs, they became aware of new scholarly opinions on Medieval French pronunciation.  Any musician can empathize with the challenge of performing recently recorded and thoroughly ingrained repertoire incorporating new stipulations. Impressively, there were only a few slips noted by this audience member.  It is exciting to someone starting out on the path of musicological scholarship to witness such an immediate application of research to live performance.

The Consort returns to Connecticut next fall, when they will perform at Yale University.  In 2013-14, they will perform in New York City and on college campuses throughout the United States.