Renaissance composers had no interest in writing long pieces, nor, had the interest been there, would they have known how to proceed. Certainly there were masses and big settings of texts like "The Lamentations of Jeremiah," but in general these were conceived as collections of several short movements.
Instead, the composers of the period turned out an astonishing number of miniature gems, highly concentrated, highly sophisticated and extraordinarily varied, and one of the challenges to modern performers of early music is how to take a bunch of these gems and put them together in a coherent program.
Saturday the Washington Camerata brought a program titled "Music From the Courts and Chapels" to the Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church that seemed to sidestep this challenge altogether.
Piece for piece, the performances were delightful. The four instrumentalists and the four singers are expert at what they do, and they perform with a nice sense of style and of Renaissance conventions. But what a mishmash of programming! Madrigals, motets, dances and songs were jumbled together, grouped only approximately by nationality (the Spanish villiancico "E la don," for instance, found itself filed under "Italian"). Although it was splendid to have the translations read before each piece, there seemed to be less of a bridge from piece to piece.
The Washington Camerata is on the way to being a very fine group, and the music it performs represents a considerable amount of research and scholarship on someone's part. Now the performers need to find a way to put it together and to present it so that it makes sense as a program.