Piffaro, Philadelphia Renaissance Band, continued its “virtual” 2020-21 season of entertaining historic concerts Jan. 5-12 with “Music for Twelfth Night.”
Piffaro, Philadelphia Renaissance Band, continued its “virtual” 2020-21 season of entertaining historic concerts Jan. 5-12 with “Music for Twelfth Night.” The program of music composed either originally for wind band or of arrangements of vocal scores was performed in the Episcopal Cathedral (Church of the Savior) of Philadelphia, located in the University City section of town.
“Twelfth Night” – the Feast of the Epiphany, Jan. 6 – marks the arrival of the Magi from the East in Bethlehem to worship the Infant Jesus and, thereby, the culmination of the celebration of Christmas. The entire Christmas season coincides with the “Winter Solstice,” that darkest time of the year when daylight is at its shortest timespan and the ancient world despaired of the return of the sunny warmth of Springtime.
Since the ancient Christian Church had no idea of when the Christ child was actually born, it’s not altogether surprising that a specific date for the celebration of Christ’s Nativity (coinciding with the Solstice) wasn’t set until the first recorded festivities marking the event took place in Rome in the year 336 A.D. That was the penultimate year of the reign of the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great. Prior to that time, Christmas, the “Mass of the Nativity of Christ,” received far less interest and notice than did Easter, the “Mass of the Resurrection of Christ.”
Eventually it caught on like wildfire, especially after St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) erected the first “Creche” (Nativity Scene). His intention was to promote an understanding of Christmas among Medieval Christians who couldn’t read the scriptural narratives but who could appreciate the rustic simplicity of the Birth of Jesus in a primitive stable.
By the time of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” in 19th century England, “Christmas” had become an entire season, starting with the four Sundays of Advent that precede it and the 12 days that follow it, leading up to Epiphany. Hence ‘Twelfth Night.”
Piffaro’s stalwart band of musicians included co-directors Joan Kimball & Robert Wiemeken, Grant Herreid, Priscilla Herreid, Greg Ingles, Eric Schmalz, and guest Mark Rimple. Their roster of pieces highlighted many of the pre-Christian legacies that added their own particular flavors of spice to the musical landscape of “Twelfth Night” music making. Instrumental processions in masques, dances of the winter nights, witches’ dances and rituals, processions of princes and lords, dances of birds and animals, and a plethora of courtly dances that continued in use well into the 18th century in the keyboard suites of J.S. Bach and G.F Handel. And – finally and resolutely – music recalling the Magi’s visit to Jerusalem and then Bethlehem.
As is always the case in Piffaro performances, even a seasoned fan like myself is always amazed by how the group’s musicians never fail to uncover yet another consort of unusual instruments that produce tones that carry within them the sonic seeds of modern instruments but that are nonetheless discernibly different. It’s often the case that the older versions proffer colors that are more biting and pungent, perhaps less steadily produced and more limited dynamically, but all the same more memorable and therefore more enveloping than the sounds of their contemporary successors.
What makes it all work so well in the case of Piffaro’s concerts is the supreme technical mastery of all the players, so much so that Piffaro musicians never fail to transcend the physical limitations of their instruments in order to make music in a manner that is both passionate and good-natured, energetic and intimate, enticing and touching. Plus, the players delightfully often don the costumes that their predecessors usually wore during these celebrations. When all of this comes together and is placed within the spacious layout and resonant acoustics of the Episcopal Cathedral, what’s left but to quote a song from the Roaring Twenties: “Who could ask for anything more?”
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