2013-2014 Season Concert Reviews

Drive the Cold Winter Away
December 27, 28, 29
Center City and Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia,  and Greenville, Delaware

NOTEWORTHY/Chestnut Hill LOCAL by Michael Caruso for 1//9/2014 

Rounding out the old year, Piffaro, the Renaissance Band, presented “Drive the Cold Winter Away” Saturday, December 28, in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. The concert, which drew an audience that was noteworthy for its size and enthusiasm, proffered an impressive survey of late Renaissance music intended to give cheer to those enduring the darkness of the winter solstice. Including music both sacred and secular – as well as Christian, Jewish and nature-oriented – the program testified to Piffaro’s abiding ability to entertain and educate simultaneously.

With several regulars performing on Broadway in productions of a pair of Shakespeare plays throughout most of the concert season, core members Grant Herreid, Joan Kimball, Robert Wiemkin & Tom Zajac were joined by soprano Laura Heimes, recorder player Gwyn Roberts (co-founder & director of Tempesta di Mare, Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra), sackbut player Adam Bregman, and cornetto player Kiri Tollaksen. This time around, the ensemble worked together as a unit whose parts were individually exemplary while its whole was greater than the sum of those parts.

Heimes once again turned out to be the star attraction of the concert, as she almost always has whenever I’ve heard her. She possesses a soprano voice that is the loveliest in tone, virtually flawless in projection, most immaculate in pitch and most crisply enunciated in diction that I have ever encountered in concert. If I weren’t actually sitting there in the church, hearing her perform “live” right in front of me, I’m sure I would find myself wondering if she were somehow lip-synching the vocal parts. But I know that that isn’t the case because no pre-recorded, studio performance could ever communicate such unfettered and unaffected joy at making music for an audience with which Heimes invests not merely every song she sings but truly every syllable in the text and every note that delivers those words to her raptly attentive audience.

Even more impressive Saturday evening, Heimes was able to cast her singing as one of many voices in the contrapuntal texture of the music. Perhaps, indeed, the principal voice, but never one that so overly dominated the others that the instrumentalists became her accompanists. Rather, they all were collaborators in making music that both celebrated the passing of the autumnal harvest season and the promise of the planting season to come in spring, or that spoke of the hope of an altogether better world.

Those instrumentalists, I hasten to add, played superbly Saturday night. Roberts’ sweet recorder playing was elegant and energetic, intimate and expansive. Bregman proved himself a sterling virtuoso on the sackbut, a predecessor of the modern trombone. Along with Wiemken on several different bass instruments, he provided a solid foundation for the high-flying counterpoint of his colleagues. Kiri Tollaksen added brilliance to the proceedings on her cornetto, Kimball and Zajac played their bagpipes tartly, and Herreid supplied delicate lute accompaniments throughout the evening.

Piffaro’s annual Christmas concert | Broad Street Review
January 02, 2014 in Music & Opera

A Renaissance-American Holiday Fete
Tom Purdom

The first half of Piffaro’s annual Christmas program included an anonymous 16thcentury French noel, Une Jeune Pucelle, that presents one of the most touching versions of the Annunciation I’ve encountered. The French words and the simple musical setting create a quiet, unadorned picture of a young woman “of noble heart” who hears the angel Gabriel announce that she has been chosen for a special destiny. She takes comfort from the angel’s promises and accepts her fate with gentle gratitude. Piffaro arranged Une Jeune Pucelle for soprano, lute, and recorder — a combination that complemented a picture based on the young country women who would have graced the world of the anonymous composer.

Piffaro’s Christmas concert contained elements of the three traditions that shape our American mashup of Christian holy day, pagan winter solstice, and purely secular end-of-theyear bash. The French Noel section that opened this year’s edition portrayed the Christian birth story through eyes influenced by French country life. The English section at the end focused on the pagan and secular aspects with dances, a song about the pre-Christian symbolism of the holly tree, and a final salute to the arrival of the new year. This year, Piffaro even managed to include Hanukkah, despite the fact that the calendar had paired it with Thanksgiving. Four Sephardic Hanukkah songs added a Catalan flavor to the mix.  (And the American holiday season does, after all, begin with the Black Friday shopping frenzy.)

Piffaro’s traditional Christmas guest, soprano Laura Heimes, was in particularly good voice and once again demonstrated her ability to capture the moods of a wide range of songs. Much as we all appreciate a good soprano, the other headlined guest, Kiri Tollaksen, contributed something extra special. Tollaksen is a trumpeter who has mastered the cornetto — a melodious wooden trumpet with holes along the top like a recorder or a flute. It’s one of the most beautiful instruments the human race has ever devised. It was a popular solo instrument in its day but faded as the violin ascended to its present prominence. In spite of its appeal, the unique sound of the cornetto is still one of the rarer pleasures encountered at period instrument concerts. At this concert it was primarily used as an ensemble instrument. It created a thin, bright line that completely changed the sound of every ensemble that included Tollaksen.

Gwyn Roberts, the co-director of Tempesta di Mare, filled in for recorder player Priscilla Herreid, who’s currently working on Broadway in the onstage period instrument ensemble that accompanies the Old Globe Theater’s ultra-historical Shakespeare productions. In addition to her ensemble work, Roberts contributed two well-placed solos on the high, sweet sopranino recorder. I tend to associate Tom Zajac with the more raucous instruments in Piffaro’s arsenal, such as the one-man wind-and-percussion duo called the pipe and tabor. The Sephardic interlude highlighted another aspect of his musical personality with a haunting solo on the wooden Renaissance flute.

A successful concert — like a good symphony — requires an overall vision that binds the individual elements into a satisfying event. Piffaro’s concerts work because of the showmanship and scholarship its musicians bring to their work under the leadership of its directors, Joan Kimball and Robert Wiemken. The showmanship is a visible onstage element composed of a good feel for pacing and changes in instrumentation. The scholarship is less visible, but you get some sense of it when you note that most of the program consists of pieces you’ve never heard before. Concerts like this have become part of our musical life because of the offstage efforts of musicians who explore mammoth libraries and make the choices that create a coherent, moving concert. If once a year is not enough Piffaro has issued a holiday CD that bears the same title as this concert, Drive the Cold Winter Away, which has 22 pieces recorded live at previous Christmas concerts. Two of them were among the 34 pieces played on this year’s program, including the title song. The other 32 pieces were all new entries in Piffaro’s holiday repertoire, as far as I could tell.

Tom Purdom (tompurdom@verizon.net) is a science fiction writer and general freelance writer who has been writing about music since 1988.

Return of the Pipers
October 18, 19, 20
Center City and Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia and Greenville, Delaware

Piffaro open its ‘Tudor Season’ | Broad Street Review
October 22, 2013 in Music & Opera
Tom Purdom

Was Henry Tudor a plagiarist? At its first concert of the season, Piffaro preceded Henry VIII’s most famous composition, “Pastime with Good Company,” with a French song, “De mon triste et desplaisir.” To my ear, the French chanson sounded like a slow, melancholy, note-for-note version of Henry’s celebration of pleasure and friendship. Henry may not have been a plagiarist, but he seems to have been a musical borrower, in the grand tradition of many composers who lived before our modern concern with nitpicking details like correct bylines. I’ve known people who feel “Pastime” is only famous because the composer achieved some notoriety in his other occupation. In Piffaro’s hands, with a full-blown arrangement that includes all the color Piffaro can pull out of its arsenal of Renaissance instruments, it becomes a robust processional. Henry VIII could have used Piffaro’s version as a buoyant Tudor equivalent of “Hail to the Chief” when he promenaded through his palaces.

Bagpipe entrance

Piffaro’s artistic directors picked a winning combination when they chose this season’s theme. Their four concerts will present music played on both sides of the English Channel during the Tudor period. Renaissance England produced a feast of engaging music, but a season exclusively devoted to its pleasures could sound monochromatic. The addition of music from the Tudors’ continental rivals automatically enlivens the series with a variety of moods and styles. The first three sets exploited the potential. The concert opened, without announcement, in patented Piffaro style, with a lone bagpiper playing a Flemish tune outside Trinity Center. Three pipers paraded up the center aisle, while the rest of the company took their places in the performance area.

Henry the charmer

A set of English tunes for recorders, lute and harp shifted the program to a quieter mood. Three religious pieces for more somber wind instruments moved it in a third direction. The rest of the first half consisted of a group of English pieces with French associations and a set of English court dances that ended the half with the mixture of refinement and vitality that characterizes much of the music of Tudor England. As it usually does in its season opener, Piffaro operated without vocalists or guest string players. The evening’s only vocal work was a lute and voice arrangement of Henry VIII’s exercise in gallantry, Helas Madame. Henry may have been a poor bet as a husband, but he would have been a great charmer at court functions if he sang with the style that Grant Herreid brought to the second piece on the Henry Tudor play list.

Melodious recorder

Piffaro took the stage minus two regulars. Priscilla Herreid (formerly Priscilla Smith) and Greg Ingles are currently performing on Broadway, in the on-stage period instrument ensemble that accompanies the Globe Shakespeare Theater’s production of Twelfth Night. Their positions were filled by a familiar Piffaro guest, sackbut specialist Liza Malamut, and the young winner of Piffaro’s 2013 National Recorder Contest, Brooklynite Martin Bernstein. Bernstein mostly played a supporting role, but he created one of the second half’s high points when he played his one solo— a melody with five variations for soprano recorder and harp. Christa Patton’s harp and Bernstein’s exceptionally melodious recorder produced a sweet, lovely interlude in a set devoted to six arrangements of a popular French song.

Spotlight on administrators

I’ve reviewed Piffaro concerts for 25 years, since the days when its musicians called themselves the Philadelphia Renaissance Wind Band, and they’re still coming up with new repertoire and new ways to present their mixture of scholarship and first-rate music making. This season, their brochures carry a small line that indicates they’re in the forefront of an important trend in the Philadelphia music scene: Their new executive director, Shannon Cline, receives a credit line right under their artistic codirectors, Joan Kimball and Robert Wiemken. When I first started reviewing, the administrators at most Philadelphia music organizations seemed to be young people with an interest in the arts, who hung around for two or three years before they took more lucrative jobs. Shannon Cline, as far as I know, is the first local administrator with a degree in arts management. To me, that extra credit line signifies that Piffaro understands the critical importance of good management. At other Philadelphia music organizations, I see other evidence that artistic leaders have developed similar attitudes.

Miles Cohen’s promotion

At many organizations, the youthful three-years-and-out contingent has been succeeded by older individuals who’ve stuck with the organization for several years and seem to be making a career out of arts management. At the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, for example, Miles Cohen has been promoted to artistic director after a long tenure as manager and artistic administrator. The artists on the stage will always be the most important individuals in any performing arts organization. But our cultural life depends on the support staffers who circulate the brochures, ride herd on the administrative chores and cajole the rest of us into making donations. The recent improvements in that area offer promise that Philadelphia’s cultural leaders are responding to the challenges of today’s mercilessly demanding society.

Our readers respond

This was a remarkably enjoyable event, for all the reasons you detail, Tom, but also for the generosity of spirit of which the performers were brimful. The Piffaro musicians are truly masterful, and the warmth they manifest—in sound, to the audience, to each other— should not be missed. And getting to vote in the audience poll as to which “national” melodies were most beautiful— English, Flemish, or French— well, that was the icing on the cake!

Tom Purdom (tompurdom@verizon.net) is a science fiction writer and general freelance writer who has been writing about music since 1988.