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Messe or Mess?

January 10, 2007

Had one of the most eccentric rehearsal experiences of my life last night. It began with sitting in a drafty church in the Inner Sunset watching several Chinese musicians and dancers practice a new year’s Lion Dance with drums, cymbals and the traditional, serpentine lion costume (that looks more like a friendly dragon) and ended with my group, San Francisco Renaissance Voices, singing 16th century composer Guillaume Bouzignac’s Jubilate Deo. Only a San Francisco early music ensemble could dream up a program like this.

The concert series that we are doing over the next couple of weekends is centered around a mass written by a French missionary in China in the 15th century -- Messe des Jesuites a Pekin. Between every movement of the mass, three Chinese musicians, playing erhu (2-stringed instrument,) di-zi (flute) and pipa (lute), play tunes.

Thanks to the very different approaches to tonality between our 15th and 16th century polyphonic songs and the Chinese pieces (which are mostly homophonic and built around a rather twangy sounding pentatonic scale), we are dealing with radical contrasts. The people in our group who are blessed with perfect pitch are considering it a bit of a curse. It’s hard launching into western scales and harmonies directly after listening to eastern ones. Like getting off the Eurostar at Calais and suddenly having to drive on the right side of the road. Except going backwards and forwards between two ways of life over and over again.

In other news, I very much enjoyed Joan Acocella’s pungent, rambunctious piece about Mozart’s librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte in last week’s New Yorker. The article was misplaced as a review: it was supposed to be an analysis of a couple of new books about Da Ponte. It wasn’t really a review at all. I think there were just a couple of cursory sentences about one of the books and nothing about the other one at all. But it was great in terms of telling us a bit about Da Ponte’s life and painting a portrait of his remarkable character. Makes me want to read more about him. Which, I suppose, is partly what a review is meant to do. The interesting thing, though, is that Acocella doesn’t recommend the new books at all. She tells readers to check out a biography of Da Ponte that was published a few years ago, by Sheila Hodges (Lorenzo Da Ponte: The Life and Times of Mozart’s Librettist). I might just do that.

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