Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 21, 2014


Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
July 15, 2014
by Michael J. Moran

A combination of threatening weather and esoteric repertoire may have limited attendance at Sequentia’s recent Tanglewood engagement, but the modest audience that braved the elements was treated to a rare excursion into unfamiliar musical terrain.

Founded in 1977 by Benjamin Bagby and the late Barbara Thornton, Sequentia is one of the world’s foremost ensembles specializing in medieval music. Their many recordings and concert tours have renewed interest in and inspired further research into this rich musical genre. Their Tanglewood program featured music from the Carolingian era, the two centuries following Charlemagne’s coronation as “Holy Roman Emperor” in 800.

The thirteen pieces on the program included two instrumental selections, but most were Latin texts sung by one or two voices, with English translations projected from the back of the stage. Though many had unknown authors, several were written by Charlemagne’s court poet, Angilbertus. Their subject matter ranged from praise for the king to a fight between two warriors to the very different plights of two women facing death.  

The performances by Bagby on voice and harp, Norbert Rodenkirchen on flutes and cithara (a kind of lyre), and vocalist Wolodymyr Smishkewych were dramatic and colorful. Bagby delivered the German text of “The Song of Hildebrand,” about a long lost hero whose son, Hadubrand, doesn’t know him when they meet in battle, with urgency and forceful diction. Smishkewych used his sweeter voice to poignant effect in the “Canticle of Eulalia,” a harrowing tale, in old French, of a beautiful young woman’s martyrdom. The virtuosic Rodenkirchen played with consistent beauty and purity of tone no matter how often he switched among his exotic-sounding instruments.

The concentration of the program into 90 minutes without an intermission and the closing of Ozawa Hall’s rear wall to keep a raging thunderstorm from drowning out the music made this an unusually intimate journey into the past. The enthralled audience called the performers back to the stage several times before the concert hall doors opened to reveal that the music had driven the storm away.