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Te Deum Antiqua singers fill St. Elizabeth Church with glorious Marian music

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Five unaccompanied voices singing Latin texts in honor of St Mary for Mother's Day


Sunday evening, Te Deum Antiqua presented "A Mother's Song," an all Latin, unaccompanied vocal program, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. True to the group's name, all music was 17th Century or earlier. True to the group's stated goal, it was, "historically informed early music."

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In his performance notes, Artistic Director, Matthew Christopher Shepard accounted for variations in Latin pronunciation in various parts of Europe and various centuries. Perhaps the most notable variant was in the dona nobis pacem of William Byrd's Mass for Three Voices; the cem was pronounced sem rather than the most commonplace chem. With no one at that time speaking Latin as a primary language, there was no absolute pronunciation authority; it was natural for the English to give the ce an English sound.

Tonight's ensemble consisted of five male singers: Jay Carter (counter tenor) tenors Andrew Childs and Bryan Pinkall; David Farwig, Bass; and Artistic Director, Christopher Matthew Christopher Shepard, who directed and sang some baritone range parts.

Liber Usualis is "a book of commonly used Gregorian chants in the Catholic tradition, compiled by the [Benedictine] monks of the Abbey of Solesmes in France" (Wikipedia). The preferred editions have a copyright of 1956 or later because they include some added liturgy.

An Ave Maria from the Liber Usualis sung by all five voices began the evening. The singers kept the tempo up, adhered to stress rules set by the Benedictines, and provided a perfectly fine musical experience for the audience as well as the singers.

Ave Regina Coelorum by Guillaume Dufay (c. 1485/1500) was sung by three of the singers, Misters Carter, Pinkall and Shepard. Carefully tuned open fourths and fifths indicated the antiquity of the music, just an historical step beyond parallel organum (no sweet Lennon Sisters' thirds and sixths here). Carefully avoided at the time was the tritone, the basis of the second to the last chord in most modern cadences. It was considered the devil in music. Listeners were free to close their eyes and enjoy the trip back in time.

Dr. Childs sang the incipit of Dufay's Ave Maris Stella, which Dufay extracted directly from the Liber Usualis, and and verses in between the contrapuntal open-harmonized sections where he was joined by Misters Carter and Shepard.

Dufay's Salve Regina employed the countertenor in the incipit and as a floating part over the busier lower contrapuntal voices.

After intermission, the program consisted of William Byrd's (1540-1623) Mass for Three Voices. As is most common, Byrd only composed the ordinary of the Mass, the parts that are not specific to a certain calendar day: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus & Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. The Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory, and Communion were taken from the mass for Marian feast days in the Liber, and the Ite, missa est (Go, the mass is ended) was appropriate for the Paschal (Easter season). Interspersing the harmonized Byrd parts with the monodic Gregorian Chant was both historically accurate and pleasing to the ear, an ebb and flow.

The singers were highly interactive, looking toward the one who would start the next section, and joining with their own parts. Byrd maintained an initial Liber incipit for each section, provided by a warm, mellow Dr. Childs and, twice, by a more celebratory Mr. Shepard. The ensemble was remarkably fine in terms of diction, tuning and text. The use of the single countertenor voice for the highest treble voice gave a different kind of weight to that part than the treble boy singers for whom it was composed.