Waverly Consort's medieval sound tests modern-day audiences

By Joan Reinthaler
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, December 13, 2010

It's been 30 years since the Waverly Consort first performed its trademark medieval liturgical drama, "The Christmas Story," at the Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Over those years, the drama has developed a patina of comfort and ease that is reassuring to listeners not familiar with the spare harmonies and modal melodies of the medieval idiom but that, by now, feel a little lackadaisical.

That there is nothing even remotely medieval-feeling about the Concert Hall at the George Mason Center for the Arts made it even more difficult for the Consort to rev up Christmas story juices for their performance there on Friday. But by having the drama's prologue sung offstage, sounding far away, and keeping the stage lights dim, a modicum of mystery was induced.

Early precursors of opera, the liturgical dramas (the earliest a simple two-line Easter enactment) were first devised in the 10th century to offer a vivid lesson in Scripture to a largely unlettered population. The Waverly Consort's Christmas story was cobbled together from a variety of sources and traces the story from the Annunciation (according to a number of prophets), through the Nativity and the journey of the Magi to Herod's slaughter of the children. Settings of the parts of the Mass are interpolated between a 14th-century Kyrie, Guilaume Dufay's high-intensity canonic "Gloria" and an Agnus Dei. A "Te Deum" chant concluded an hour of music that proceeded calmly and without pause.

But what may have been thrilling to a medieval mind not yet used to being zapped by overstimulation seems pretty pale today. Noah Greenberg, founder of the now-defunct New York Pro Musica, understood this and overdramatized his arrangements to allow them to speak to his modern audiences. The Waverly's arrangements (all original medieval manuscripts are only outlines of what was probably intended and must be arranged to be performed) are spare and understated, quite lovely in the abstract but not particularly dramatic.

The eight singers, in true early-music fashion, sang lightly and with a straight vocal production that kept them unerringly on pitch. The five instrumentalists who played many different instruments (my favorite was the "nun's fiddle," a long, skinny, one-stringed wooden box played with a bow that produced a nasty raspberry of a sound) in the course of the evening did so expertly, although the two horns sounded indecisive in the fast give-and-take "hocket" of the Dufay "Gloria," and the whole well-paced production moved smoothly.

Reinthaler is a freelance writer.

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