Armonia Nova's arresting concert of early music at St. Mark's, Capitol Hill

Monday, June 28, 2010

Even if Pepco must share credit with Mediterranean stonework for the welcome cool that greeted the audience at Friday's performance by the Armonia Nova ensemble at St. Mark's Church, Capitol Hill, it was the chill beauty of the medieval French (and French-influenced) love songs that provided the greatest respite from the broiling heat outside.

The performance was part of the closing weekend for the 2010 Washington Early Music Festival, which has presented 20 events throughout June at nine area churches and La Maison Francaise.

An ample audience turnout Friday might have been due to the guest artist -- the pearl-toned soprano Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, a member of the popular early-music quartet Anonymous 4. The vocalists of the D.C.-based Armonia Nova, however, sounded fully up to Horner-Kwiatek's level. Allison Mondel's ethereal soprano, Marjorie Bunday's warm and pure-toned mezzo, and Jay White's alternation of supple tenor and focused countertenor (shifting registers as individual pieces required), blended beautifully in a recital of songs from roughly 1200 through the late 1400s.

The program -- which interspersed works by well-known composers like the 14th-century Guillaume de Machaut and the 15th-century Guillaume Dufay with music by their contemporaries and chivalric songs by their 13th-century forebears -- found a welcome variety of tone and texture. In an anonymous duet, "Dites, seignor," White and Horner-Kwiatek created an operatic level of engagement (in a piece written 300 years before opera was invented), as did Mondel in a rendition of another score of unknown origin, "S'on me regarde," that exuded erotic longing and fear of discovery.

A few moments of faulty tuning and uneven articulation aside (not to be confused with the pungent harmonies and piquant effects written into this music), the ensemble's two instrumentalists -- medieval-harpist Constance Whiteside (the group's artistic director) and violinist Craig Resta, who played here on the arrestingly throaty precursor to the violin, the medieval vielle -- both did sterling and vividly atmospheric work.

-- Joe Banno

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