Renaissance instruments aplenty plucked and sang through the first concert of the Madison Early Music Festival's eighth season on Saturday. UW Mills Hall was lined with recorders, lutes, sackbuts (ancestor to the trombone) and shawms (predecessor to the modern oboe).
The concert began backstage with the reedy drone of bagpipes. Piffaro, a Philadelphia-based Renaissance wind band, filed on stage with a procession of bagpipes, harp and guitar, but when the drum and tambourine joined the group, the mood changed from stately to festive. A little percussion goes a long way with these early-music bands.
The evening's music celebrated the Low Countries that, in the 16th century, covered Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and parts of France and Germany. The composers from this region were in high demand because they had invented a simple but revolutionary way of writing polyphony, a musical style of the day, where soprano, alto, tenor and bass lines were composed separately and successively. The Flemish genius was in composing all the parts at the same time, hearing the effect of one on the other. They unified the process and created a polyphonic organism.
The first half of Piffaro's program highlighted composers from the early years of the Flemish burgeoning. Jacob Obrecht, Josquin Desprez and Heinrich Isaac all lived between 1440 and 1521. The music was dense with melodies running along at the same time but at different speeds. While the band created rhythmic nuance and tastefully shaped melodies, there was a sameness to the pieces.
Piffaro's memory work was impressive. Ensembles usually don't play pieces from memory because it's dangerous. If one player misses a beat, a cue or a note, other players get thrown off, and the piece can disintegrate in a few seconds. Polyphonic music with its braided melodies is especially hard to memorize.
You could have a raucously good time in the Renaissance, with music competitions often the highlight of the year. Piffaro humorously reenacted one such competition between Josquin Desprez and Heinrich Isaac for the position of maestro di cappella at the court in Ferrara. A courtier wrote to the Duke that while Desprez was admittedly the better composer, Isaac could turn out tunes to order. Piffaro three times played Desprez and then Isaac's responses. I joined the majority of the audience in clapping for Isaac, whose music had sass and pizzazz, but in 1501 we would have been disappointed since Desprez got the job.
And, yes, the love songs and dances, those gems that make you forget about hard times. With a suite of Flemish dances from 1551, Piffaro laid into a little improv, a little boogie. The beat grabbed us and we thought as folks did who danced to this music long ago. No matter what happens tomorrow, we're having a roaring good time tonight.