MUSIC AND DANCE REVIEWS : Ensemble Reconstructs an Old Roman Mass

Presenting unusual music in unusual settings is practically the modus operandi of the Chamber Music in Historic Sites people, but Sunday afternoon’s offering--Old Roman chant in South-Central Los Angeles--outdid the standard.

In its local debut, Ensemble Organum, the much-recorded French early-music group headed by Marcel Peres, reconstructed a Mass for Ascension Thursday from the Old Roman repertory--music of the 7th to 13th centuries that represents a distinct line from the more familiar Gregorian chant, though with common roots. A large audience packed St. Cecilia’s Church, built in 1927 near 42nd Street on Normandie Avenue, for the very rare opportunity to hear it.

Probably even unsavvy ears could note some characteristics of the Old Roman chant that differ from the Gregorian, and certain features of an uninterrupted hour of this music could amaze a 20th-Century listener. There are quick and numerous twists and shakes that embellish the vocal line, for instance, and give this chant a decidedly Middle Eastern flavor.

Also, the presentation of the chant over long-held pedal tones in octaves--the root notes of the mode--lend the Old Roman style a luxury that other chant sometimes lacks. And when those pedal tones shifted planes after minutes of drone, the harmonic effect startled.


The Epistle and Gospel were limned in solo voice, the foundation tones hanging in the aural memory to be returned to after melismatic filigree. The Sanctus and Agnus Dei broke out suddenly in parallel organum. Ensemble Organum--seven male voices on this occasion, Peres’ among them--hid its scholarship well, singing naturally, with easy unity. For a time, it was possible to imagine oneself in medieval Rome.