The pleasures of a largely unaccompanied recital of medieval songs in Old Occitan, introduced by two professors and delivered in a college library, may seem rarefied at best.
But Super Bowl or no, just such a program drew its usual, near-capacity Chamber Music in Historic Sites crowd Sunday afternoon. The troubadours, after all, were entertainers first, and Hoose Library at USC proved a sonically and visually attractive pseudo-Romanesque chapel.
Sequentia is an elastic ensemble, expanding or contracting to meet the immediate repertory demands. On this occasion it was just four musicians--singers/leaders Barbara Thornton and Benjamin Bagby, and fiddle players Patricia Neely and Laura Jeppesen.
Their taut, neatly constructed program was titled "La Vita Nuova: Dante and the Troubadours." It consisted of only nine songs, circa AD 1200, by six troubadours about whom Dante wrote.
Bagby generally sang the more earthy, extroverted texts, written in the langue d'oc of southern France, and sounding much like modern Catalan. He paced and inflected his pieces with the expressive point of a natural storyteller, in a light, clear tenor.
Thornton took the more swooning, visionary lyrics. She kept her even mezzo almost aggressively free of vibrato, except in her most chesty tones, singing in a slower style, rich in rhetorical swellings and quick melismatic glosses.
Neely and Jeppesen supplied a few bravura ritornellos, like the antique hoedown for Bertran de Born's "Rassa! tan creis e monta e poia," and some drone-support for the singers. Thornton also contributed occasional droning accompaniment on a symphonia , a small hurdy-gurdy. Bagby joined the instrumentalists in some attractive interludes, on a small harp, accompanying himself effectively in Folquet de Marseilla's "Tant m'abellis l'amoros pessamens."
The historicity of all this is open to considerable debate. For the academically disinterested listener, however, Sequentia's interpretations, touched with refined excitement, sounded quite plausible.