Thursday, January 27, 2011

Rocking Renaissance: Round, round, get around

Chances are you’re rock-solid when it comes to the 800-pound gorillas of the era, the rockstars of the Renaissance, the bigwigs of the arts and sciences of the period. Which is to say, chances are good that you’re down with da Vinci and Michelangelo and that old sourpuss Galileo — maybe even Raphael. But if the Jeopardy category was music of the Renaissance instead of superstars, you’d probably be wishing you were on Cash Cab and could use a mobile shout out, because, for most people, including your shout out candidates, the category is a virtual black hole. History has all but swallowed up the composers of the era, with the possible exception of William Byrd, and that’s a stretch. Even Josquin des Pres, who helped create the  polyphonic musical form that would influence the future of all musical harmony at the same time that Leonardo turned the worlds of art, science and philosophy on their heads, has washed up on the shores of who-dat?  “It’s true, I’m not sure why, but it’s true,” says Charles Bradley, a tenor who leads Primal Polyphony, a Renaissance singing group that  promises to get all medieval, musically, on the audience as it pursues its mission  — to open up the music of the period —  when it pulls into the Port this weekend for a benefit for the Actors Studio.

Artists-in-Residence at All Saints Church in Peterborough, N.H., Primal Polyphony has been performing together for over nine years. And that doesn’t count the nine months (“a sort of gestation period,” Bradley says) that the performers virtually lived together in Kingston, N.H. — home base for the musicians — as they were getting the group together. In addition to Bradley, PP includes soprano Wilhelmina Bradley and mezzo-soprano Annie Philips. They will dig deep into the three Ms — madrigals, masses and motets. The music is a capella, but sometimes they’ll pick up a recorder to pump it up a bit.

The core of the performance will be Byrd’s “Mass for Three Voices,” but the trio will also perform sacred music by Orlando Gibbons, a motet from Tomas Luis Victoria, as well as street rounds collected by Thomas Ravenscroft, another composer from the era, whose own work is largely forgotten and, if he is known at all in the larger arts community, it is for his work collecting, transcribing and publishing street rounds that had survived as part of an oral tradition. The difference in the three forms — church, home and street — are about what you might expect: The degrees of housebrokenness, although the differences between the sacred and the profane in those days is undoubtedly based on a genteel quotient that few in our going-straight-to-hell culture could possibly meet. 

The music itself is, well, glorious and transcendent, says Bradley. “It’s searing and, at times, mournful. It’s joyous and sometimes sassy. It’s an astounding body of work … with complex structures and harmonies, but which are easy to access spiritually.” But you’ve got to seek it out, and it’s not easy to find. “It’s not like there’s a club in town where they’re jamming on William Byrd,” Bradley says.

The performance is a benefit for the Actors Studio, where Bradley has been taking acting classes for about a year, and, he says, “an unimaginable gem for the wider community.”

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Primal Polyphony will perform Renaissance music at 3 p.m. Jan. 30 at the Actors Studio, at the Tannery, Mill #1, Suite 5, 50 Water St., Newburyport. Tickets are $18, $15 for students and seniors. For more information, call 978-465-1229.


  1. Enjoy the Byrd. Fabulous music. "Every man should learne to sing" wrote the great Elizabethan composer. Our church in England - Stondon Massey Essex, where Byrd is buried, is organising a William Byrd Festival in May. Visit us at

  2. An absolutely wonderful performance!