There is a certain shock value in hearing the music of the distant past, as
there often is with music of today. Our most familiar repertory stems from a
time (Bach, say, through Debussy) when certain stated or implied rules
governed such musical matters as harmony and structure. Anything composed
before those rules, or after they had worn out their welcome, can put the
timid listener to flight. Nobody actually tried to flee the wonderful concert at the Getty Museum on
Saturday night. The fact that the music was all half a millennium old
conferred on the performers — the Early Music Ensemble of San Diego and the
lutenist Michael Eagan — an aura of antiquarian respectability. Even so, it
turned out to be a night full strange, daring sounds.
It was a time and place, the court of Burgundy late in the 15th century, when
all the arts seemed swept by a passion for change. In painting, the Van Eyck
brothers experimented with perspective; in music the composers Guillaume Dufay
and Gilles Binchois dabbled in new harmonic colorations — in something as
natural to today’s ears as the triad, which was at that time denounced by
cultural leaders as a dissonance. In a fantastically colorful motet, Dufay’s
“Flos florum,” sung by the San Diegans on Saturday, a vulnerable listener
might well have expected the handsomely decorated walls of the Getty’s Inner
Peristyle Garden to collapse from the weight of those twisted melodic lines
with their raw, tortured harmonies. It was, therefore, a concert both new and old: a program in which,
paradoxically, the opening set of short religious works seemed the livelier,
and the later series of lovesongs seemed like one slow, lovelorn lament after
another — all, of course, hauntingly beautiful. The five-member San Diegan ensemble has worked as an early-music group since
1972. Their voices did not come across as super-suave, in the manner of all
those British ensembles that have come to town recently. Their forte is the
splendid sense of ensemble, the give-and-take that even seems willing to
admit that some of this music is actually rather comic, and is meant to
be. At intermission, to add to the music’s impact, there was the chance to wander
through the museum, to marvel at the million-dollar shadows on the shiny
surface of Van Gogh’s “Irises” and, even better, to take in the splendid
illustrated manuscript of “The Visions of Tondal,” dating from the same time
and place as the music, and reflecting the same wild grotesqueries as in the
music downstairs. This was the first in the Getty’s fifth annual biweekly concert series, devoted
this year to the historic music of five European cultural centers (next time,
Florence). It has become a hot ticket; this summer’s series is already sold
out, and deservedly so.

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