On Wednesday in the Concert Hall at Drew Piffaro, The Renaissance Band, filled the evening with music from “el Nuevo Mundo” (the New World). Before the musicians took to the stage, two tables were set with a multitude of different instruments resembling recorders, oboes, bassoons and trombones.
I expected at least 20 or 30 players to walk through the doors, each claiming an instrument. Instead, seven performers clad in black glided to center stage and with a collective intake of their breaths, produced their first piece. This piece was entitled “Tane gil du tamborino” and according to the program was being played by shawms, sackbut, dulcians and percussion.
The program read that a vihuela, krumhorn, harp, guitar and bagpipe would be used in other songs. As some of these names were quite foreign to me, I was glad when Bob Wiemken, Artistic Co-Director of Piffaro and recorder/dulcian/percussion player, discussed the different instruments at the end of the first song. Instruments are often categorized into families, such as woodwinds, brass etc. Wiekmen also described the instruments used in the concert as family, but in a new light.
All the instruments used by the performers were the technical ancestors of modern day instruments. As Wiekmen made this concept clear, the audience – myself included – let out a quiet, collective “Ohh…” Each type of instrument had different variations (like siblings or cousins), such as soprano, tenor and bass recorders. The ancestors resembled their present day descendants in their similar sounds and aesthetic appearances.
For example, the bagpipes used during the performance in songs such as “Villano” and “Alli in Midbar & Canarios” looked like smaller modern day bagpipes but were significantly smaller and softer sounding. It is safe to say that Piffaro has altered my impression of bagpipes and exemplified an outstanding versatility.
Piffaro’s concert showed versatility in each song as unexpected combinations of instruments were brought together, generating music that complimented each performer’s sound. Wiekman described Piffaro and the music they played as “pieces of puzzles” assembling beautifully.
The musicians themselves displayed adaptability as they each were able to play at least two or three instruments. After each piece, the players would swiftly switch their instrument out for a new one and reconvene at a different music stand on stage. In this way, the concert could be seen as a metaphor for evolution in the context of music and instruments.
Though the musicians’ instruments and placements around the stage were constantly changing throughout the concert, their focus stayed constant.
As they played, they swayed and sometimes hopped to the music. They frequently looked at each other and worked together to determine cues for starting, stopping and changes in speed. Throughout the concert, I observed quick smiles exchanged between the performers as they enjoyed the music and the abilities of their fellow band members.
Though the pieces played throughout the concert were from the Renaissance era, they varied in their inspirations and where they were written.
These divergences caused the songs to have distinct “flares,” as Wiekman explained. For instance, the piece entitled “Villano” was written anonymously and was said to have come from peasant life. “Villano” was a cheerful, dance-like song. “La Dame le demande,” on the other hand, was written for court life and felt somber and elegant. These two songs came from opposite classes, and those origins impacted the speed, beat and instruments used, since the songs served very different purposes.
After a brief and buzzing intermission, the musicians returned to the stage, producing the most breathtaking pieces of the entire concert. “Yyai Jesuchristo,” “Christianos” and “Dulce Jesus mio” were written in Bolivia and pieces such as “Folias fallegas,” “Zarambeques” and “Canarios” originated from the Canary Islands.
Some of these pieces had stories behind them, which Wiekman explained to the audience before the band performed the songs. “Nina, con tus libres modos” for example, was about the trials of unrequited love. This was portrayed in its somber and angsty feel woven into the music.
Another piece, entitled “Sae la blanca aurora,” told the story of the dawn of love by starting out slow and building both in volume and complexity.
Piffaro’s music exposed me to a new form of Renaissance music I wasn’t aware existed. Prior to the concert, my impression of what Renaissance music could be was narrow and specific.
Coming from tropical islands or the heart of South America, Renaissance music is merely a template that composers used to express their culture and tell stories in a passionate and colorful way.