MUSIC REVIEW : Some Medieval Marvels at Ambassador


Representing all that is best, rather than merely facile and trendy, in the current revival of interest in medieval music, the five-member Ensemble Project Ars Nova brought slices of 14th- and 15th-Century culture to life at Ambassador Auditorium on Wednesday.

The American group takes its name from a 14th-Century musical treatise, “Ars Nova” (New Art), emblematic of an era of extraordinary musical inventiveness and complexity brought about in part by new systems of musical notation. Which hardly means that resurrecting the lush polyphony of that time is as easy as reading notes off a page. It still involves a good deal of inspired guesswork from its most convincing practitioners, among which this superbly equipped quintet surely ranks.

The three vocalists, soprano Laurie Monahan, countertenor Michael Collver (who also played the antique cornetto with remarkable control) and John Fleagle, a high baritone who took the minstrel’s part by accompanying himself on a small harp, deliver with unfailing intensity and something approaching uncanny intonational accuracy.


Throughout the evening, from the opening, heartbreaking “Iherusalem, Iherusalem,” with Collver’s ethereally pure tones counterpoised by Monahan’s ripe, unquestionably feminine ones, to the final group of songs of the Sephardic Jews of Spain, with splendid licks for fiddler (playing rebec and vielle) Shira Kammen and lutenist Crawford Young, these artists conveyed matters universal and immediate rather than esoteric and ancient.

The program, thematically dedicated to “Pilgrims and Pilgrimage Routes” to Jerusalem, offered as well a generous sampling of the powerfully communicative art of such masters of the time as Francesco Landini and Guillaume Dufay, and the various Anons who contributed to the richness of the French court of Cyprus.

Allow us to suggest, however, that Ensemble Project Ars Nova pay some attention to its written and spoken presentations: The skimpy printed notes told us next to nothing about the composers or their milieu, and while Fleagle may sing like a dream, his halting spoken explanations provided more puzzlement than clarification.