To accompany the exhibition “The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini,” the early music ensemble TENET held court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a lovely concert of musical portraits from the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Quite literally, the performance was held beneath the marble arches of the Vélez Blanco Patio, a sixteenth-century Spanish courtyard rebuilt in the museum. While the setting could not have been more evocative, the high ceilings and hard surfaces created an acoustic that blended the sound a bit more than was desirable.

TENET Ensemble, © Joanne Bouknight
TENET Ensemble,
© Joanne Bouknight

Fortunately, we were in good hands, as TENET features ensemble singers who are equally comfortable as soloists, and could carry their lines through the wash. The program, assembled by guest music director Scott Metcalfe, found inspiration in the idea of portraits with vocal selections that portray noblemen, lovers, marriage, and some picaresque characters. The opening piece, by medieval composer Johannes Ciconia, was the oldest work on the program, and demonstrated the instrumental style of vocal writing that would persist throughout the early Renaissance: fleet lines, long, sometimes jumpy melismas, and unexpected cadences.

Renaissance composers treated the voice like an instrument, with vocal lines traversing a range as large as the vielle, the medieval fiddle played by Metcalfe. With key signatures yet to be invented, the lines meander in surprising ways. The voices weave over, under, and through each other, sometimes pushing the limits of what we think of today as tonality. TENET’s singers expertly navigated these complexities, emphasizing important words in the text and shaping phrases along their natural contours. The six vocalists appeared in various configurations, accompanied by instruments familiar to early music enthusiasts: a twangy medieval harp, recorders, lute, and a douçaine, a reedy ancestor to the oboe. Composers often left no indications of instrumentation; Metcalfe and the ensemble carefully chose instruments and voice parts to create a program of varied textures and colors.

Among the highlights were several works by Guillaume Dufay, perhaps the most admired composer on the program. Two of his pieces contained acrostics in the first letters of each line of text, spelling the names of the noblewomen to whom they were dedicated. Mon cuer me fait tous dis penser (“My heart makes me think always of you”) was especially gorgeous, with “blue notes” throughout the embroidered phrases, giving real sensuality to lines such as “a rose sweet-smelling as cardamom.”

TENET’s singers beautifully balanced this repertoire’s competing demands of contrapuntal clarity and blend between the voices. During Mirar non posso ni conçerner dona, perhaps a tribute to the niece of a Colonna pope, Aaron Sheehan’s high tenor was a perfect match to Ryland Angel’s resonant alto, and a recorder (played by Debra Nagy) masqueraded as a third voice.

Two sonnets, one by Petrach and another by Serafino Aquilano, were adapted to fit settings of other poems, the new sonnets being closer matches to the theme of the exhibition. These songs were examples of the frottola, a style of secular polyphonic song that was popular in Italy until the 16th century, before the rise of the madrigal. They had a simpler, more declamatory style than the earlier works. Ryland Angel sang the Petrarch sonnet with pure sound and thoughtful phrasing, while the Aquilano featured all four gentleman singers and sensitive lute accompaniment by Grant Herreid.

The program also featured several works by Dufay’s celebrated contemporary Antonie Busnoys. Soprano and TENET Artistic Director Jolle Greenleaf brought personal meaning to Ja que li ne s’i attende, a touching love poem that was surprisingly tuneful.

The group called their final selections “Portraits from street theatre,” dispelling any thoughts that Renaissance music can’t be fun. Io som maistro Barileto (“I am master Barileto”) was a boastful catalogue by an anonymous cook, apparently his sales pitch to the aristocracy to cater their parties. “I make a good soup,” we are told. “And when in bed I like to make pesto!”

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