Brueghel’s Musicians

The freshest breeze in the Renaissance scene – San Francisco Chronicle

Whetted appetites for more…the most stylish sackbut and cornetto riffs heard here in many years – Los Angeles Times

Calliope proved it is just as much a virtuoso musical force as Horowitz, Pavarotti, or the Chicago Symphony – Madison Capital Times

No serious concert of the past year has been as much sheer fun – San Diego Reader

If there is a better way to spend a Sunday afternoon, it does not come readily to mind – Los Angeles Daily News

Calliope more than lives up to its name, which means beautiful-voiced – the Washington Post

Imaginative and stylistically sensible performances – The New York Times

MUSIC/NOTED IN BRIEF: Schickele’s ‘bestiary’ with Calliope Band
The New York Times
Published: November 15, 1983

The members of Calliope, a self-described Renaissance band, believe that the unique qualities of antiquated musical instruments such as the viol, the hurdy-gurdy, the shawm and the sackbut lend themselves not only to performances of early music, but also to some music being written today. They proved their point Saturday night with an engaging concert at the Abraham Goodman House.

Music by Guillaume Dufay, Gilles Binchois and several forgotten 15th- and 16th-century composers made up the first half of the program; it was skillfully essayed by Lucy Bardo, Lawrence Benz, Allan Dean and Ben Harms, the four members of Calliope. Each musician plays several instruments masterfully, and the collective tone they produce is spare but surprisingly varied.

The second half of the program was devoted entirely to ”Bestiary,” a delightfully silly music theater piece by Peter Schickele, written specifically for Calliope, which called on the musicians to play, sing and recite doggerel verse, while mimicking the behavior of frogs, elephants, hedgehogs and the evanescent unicorn.

By Giorgio Migliavacca

Rivers of ink have been poured by aesthetes to debate whether the sense of sight or the sense of hearing reigned supreme during the Renaissance, and such a debate is by no means idle as was proven on Friday evening at the Atrium where Renaissance band Calliope presented a kaleidoscopic musical selection playing period instruments.

The programme included popular tunes as well as music for the elite from the late 1400s to the late 1500s. Indeed, very few of us are familiar with this type of repertoire but there was no effort or strain on the side of the audience to assimilate and fully enjoy the Calliope offerings.

The first four selections featured Dances published in the Netherlands in the mid-1500s; these brought the audience back to the days when musicos engaged in writing pieces to accompany songs and dances during carnival, or the commoners’ verses for the frottole, sung in several parts.

By the end of the 1400s a Flemish, Heinrich Isaac (1450-1517) had been commissioned in Florence to “give artistic form to the old tunes of Carnival and Maytime dance at a time when Lorenzo de’ Medici (the Grand Duke of Tuscany) was himself composing lively verses for these entertainments”, consisting of song and dance which drew on the authentic sources of popular art.

The popular tunes from German lands offered by Calliope on Friday included music by two leading composers of the early German polyphonic lied such as Heinrich Isaac and Heinrich Finck (1445-1527). Finck was born in Bamberg or Transsylvania and spent considerable time at the Polish court, with occasional trips to Hungary, Austria and Germany; in his later years he served as Kapellmeister at the Salzburg cathedral, and eventually became the musical director at the imperial court in Vienna. His love songs have been deemed superior in both workmanship and expressiveness to the secular polyphonic pieces. Isaac, as we have seen, was very versatile and after his Italian sojourn he returned to Innsbruck (Austria) and was appointed court composer by Emperor Maximilian. His chansons are markedly different from his frottole as evidenced by his pursuit of continuity. The German tunes segment was concluded by a folk song written by Conrad Paumann (1410-1473); he included this item in his treatise on organ music as the basis for an improvisation. Paumann, a blind man, was held in high esteem by his contemporaries and was appointed organist at the court of Albert III of Bavaria at Munich. French, Flemish and English musicians had made their fortunes in Italy, where local musicians and composers perceived the foreigners as a serious threat. On a trip to Italy, Paumann refused to go to Milan for fear he would be poisoned by envious organists. Paumann played organ, fiddle, lute, flute and trumpet. His “Fundamentum” treatise demonstrates, among other things, how to write a lively counterpoint to a generally slow moving composition.

Concluding the first part of the programme was a series of settings by various composers, including a Calliope “improvviso”, of one of Renaissance’ most famous tunes ” L’homme armé. Its melody is genuinely captivating and benefits from felicitous moments in the rhythmic scheme. It must be added that there are few musicians who have taken time out to learn how to improvise in this repertoire and Calliope’s rendition was simply superb.

The second part of the concert presented us with a totally different Calliope; the intent and some of the music were basically the same but the pace and approach was, to use a plain term, decidedly modern. In many ways this segment went a long way to enhance the appreciation of the first segment of the concert as it showed that after four centuries the musical substance is very much the same. This, however, is no veiled suggestion that the first part was top-heavy for an audience that was less than familiar with the repertoire; in fact there were too many familiar tunes and the excitement of unusual instruments to keep the eyes of the public glued to the stage and the ears wide open to savour the textures of pre-Baroque music. One of the selections was very reminiscent of What Child is this? (Greensleeves) and that alone was a big charmer.

The instruments – thirty of them – were exact replicas of period instruments and ranged from the violin’s predecessor of Columbus’s days (a six-stringed viola da gamba) to the J-shaped krummhorns, the sackbut, the double-reed shawm (a raucous forerunner of the oboe), a Renaissance tambourine, to the unique cornetto which is fingered like a woodwind but is blown like a trumpet. In the two days preceding the concert, Calliope members had been busy with local students generating enthusiasm and enormous interest.

The 23-year-old Renaissance group, still boasting its original membership, offered a high level of stylish execution in a well-developed programme that benefitted from a truly “intelligent” approach. Calliope offered first-class ensemble playing, and singing. The programme was no historical curiosity, but a surprisingly beautiful collection of music to be heard and marveled at.

Individually each of Calliope’s soloists shone, and the band shaped their music convincingly. Lots of applause and a brilliant encore.