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MUSIC REVIEW

No one loses with 'Chant Wars'

March 02, 2004|Richard S. Ginell | Special to The Times

The Da Camera Society of Mount St. Mary's College doesn't need provocative titles to sell its lively Chamber Music in Historic Sites series, but once in a while it selects a program like "Chant Wars." What could this be? Groups of otherwise peaceful monks slugging it out in a medieval battle of the bands, perhaps with a sadistic emcee adding his two cents a la "American Idol"?

Of course, nothing that dramatic (or barbaric) took place within the reverberant walls of the college's Mary Chapel in Brentwood on Sunday afternoon. The noted medieval music groups Sequentia and Dialogos joined forces to explore variants of European chant in the time of Charlemagne, who apparently sought to impose one standard upon the whole tradition.

Directors Benjamin Bagby (Sequentia) and Katarina Livljanic (Dialogos) freely used members of both groups in a sequence of chants from all over Europe, now and then prefacing selections with slowly intoned narrations from the period that occasionally elicited a laugh or two. The chants turned out to be a fairly diverse lot -- and not always confined to biblical texts.

One excerpt from Otfrid von Weissenburg's "Evangelienbuch," comparing the Franks with the Romans and Greeks, had an appealingly rough, earthy quality in contrast to its neighbors. Another standout was a haunting lament on the death of Charlemagne, accompanied delicately by a six-stringed Germanic harp. The most striking number was a Frankish "Laudate Dominum," a robust call-and-response piece.

Taken as a whole, though, this was a rather demanding program for concentrated listening -- 75 minutes of plainchant without intermission. The easiest way to experience it was to forget any scholarly pretensions and bathe in the meditative glow of the sound. And the eight male voices of both Sequentia and Dialogos were of top quality; when heard together in full harmony, they produced a startling, cleansing blend.

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