Runnymede Pop Festival
The Sydney music scene never fails to amaze and delight me. Just when I think I’ve got a handle on what’s around, up pops another group that I’ve somehow not heard of in my 18 months back in the city. This time it’s the Renaissance Players. They presented their first concert in 1966, and in 1973 staged the 1st Runnymede Pop Festival of medieval music. Today was Festival number 36!! This is a group that has truly lasted the distance and gone from strength to strength. Interested in a CD? They have 25 to choose from!
Wonderfully engaging performance of medieval music, singing, bawdy poetry, and fun
The Festival, running just shy of 3 hours, was a wonderfully engaging performance of medieval music, singing, bawdy poetry, and fun. The Great Hall at Sydney University is a perfect setting with its gothic style interior, enhanced by the addition of medieval banners adorning the stage and hiding the music stands. The troupe is made up of eight talented musicians (Llew Kiek, Andrew Lambkin, Jane Duncan, Cyrus Meurant, Jessica Lim, Mitchell Riley, Jessica O’Donoghue, and early music expert and founder Professor Winsome Evans) playing (by my count) 25 different instruments during the program, a reader of poems and teller of jokes (Geoff Sirmai), and Erasmus a delightfully accomplished mime artist. His walking a tightrope 8 feet above the stage, and lifting twice his body weight (all mimed of course!) were hilarious interludes during the program.
Rarely heard instruments & a comprehensive programme
I suspect many of us know relatively little about the instruments and music of the period. Check off how many of the following instruments you could identify: ud, saz, fidel, tabor, zils, pandero, mandora, bombo … just to name a few new to me. I particularly appreciated the free programme booklet, which was extremely comprehensive with 36 pages packed full of notes about composers, the style of music, historical information, and photos. A thumbnail biographical sketch about each performer would have been a nice addition.
The Festival opened with the troupe, clad in brightly coloured medieval garb and carrying candles, solemnly processing to the stage from the back of a darkened hall and chanting an ancient Spanish chant whose text can be traced back to the C4th. Two religious songs about the Virgin Mary, a common source of inspiration for much medieval song and chant, followed. Jessica O’Donoghue (soprano) and Mitchell Riley (baritone) sang with great clarity of diction, energy, and expression throughout the afternoon. The hauntingly beautiful love song Brid One Breere, accompanied by Winsome Evans on the gemshorn (horn of chamoix or ox with finger holes) was paired with Unter Der Linden in which the whistle accompaniment imitated the nightingale with whom the singer was sharing her heart’s secrets. Both songs were exquisitely performed. This delicacy contrasted well with several numbers after the interval that had me wanting to get up and dance – much vigorous beating of drums by Andrew Lambkin supported by woodblocks, flutes, organs, tambourines, and stringed instruments, boisterous singing, and lots of medieval ‘hey ho’ calls! One of the more amusing songs was Orientis Partibus from The Prose of the Ass sung at the Feast of the Circumcision, with ass brays included in the singing and closing with one big bray by all performers!
The second half of the programme opened with Ave Generosa Gloriosa, a hymn written by Hildegarde von Bingen, the C12th mystic and composer of several dozen liturgical songs. This was presented as melody only, with Evans playing the portatative organ (picture a very small organ on a table, played with your right hand on a mini keyboard while your left works the bellows by opening and closing a wooden flap) over a deep drone. Several songs written by Neidhart von Reuental, the nearest thing to a medieval pop star, were incorporated into an instrumental medley leading into two sung items in which the composer reminisces about his unsuccessful seduction of a local peasant girl. Medieval songs are definitely earthy once the topic moves out of the religious domain!
Longest running, professional early music ensemble in Australia
The Renaissance Players is the longest running, professional early music ensemble in Australia, providing music lovers with the opportunity to experience music rarely heard live. The range of instruments played by these virtuosic performers is impressive, and the incorporation of poetry/readings and the miming Fool contributes to a fuller medieval music experience. I’ll be keeping an eye open for their next concert, that’s for sure.
36th Runnymede Pop Festival
Great Hall, Sydney University, 29th June 2014