Fortune’s Wheel

Lydia Heather Knutson & Aaron Sheehan, voice
Robert Mealy & Shira Kammen, vielle, harp, voice


Wilma Salisbury, Cleveland Plain Dealer, January 2005:

The rewards were large as the four-member ensemble took listeners on a fascinating musical tour through the Burgundian courts of Philip the Good and Charles the Bold… Each artist brought a distinctive sonority and personality to the historically informed interpretations. Yet they performed together with a fine sense of teamwork.

Mezzo-soprano Lydia Heather Knutson produced a pure and centered tone that was ideally suited to the ancient style. Her clarion voice gleamed in Amoureux sui, a joyous love song by Binchois, and she penetrated to the heart of the same composer's Dueil angoisseus, an impassioned death wish expressing inconsolable grief… Tenor Aaron Sheehan stood quietly as he poured out poetic texts with lovely tone and sensitive nuance. Especially moving was his interpretation of Binchois’ profound lament, Ay, doloureux.

(for the complete review, click here.)

Jonathan Saville, San Diego Reader, 2003:

Fortune’s Wheel, a four-person group dedicated to medieval music, is notable for the personal charm of its members. Each of them has an engaging personality, and any concert by the group results in a vivid sense of who they are and what they’re like: people one would like to know personally, quite apart from their musical talents.

Their recent return under the auspices of the San Diego Music Society found them just as charming as before. Tenor Aaron Sheehan took the place of Paul Cummings, and Sheehan was obviously chosen not only for his strong and flexible high-lying voice but also for his good looks, his presence, his air of warm friendliness towards his colleagues, and—yes—his charm. The elegant and charming soprano, Lydia Heather Knutson, was still in place, and still one of the most technically assured and graceful early-music singers around. Fiddler Robert Mealy was as brilliant as ever on his instrument, and as charmingly ironic in his occasional commentaries.

The chief charmer remains Shira Kammen, that exuberant maid-of-all-early-music-work who plays medieval fiddle and harp and also sings with power and suavity when a third voice is needed. This bushy-haired lady, with her smiles of appreciation at her fellow musicians, her irrepressible enjoyment of the music she is performing, and the impression she gives of being totally delighted to be before this audience at this moment, diffuses an atmosphere of happiness the moment she steps on stage. She is so unaffectedly charming that you want to hug her…

What I like so much about this group is that they can deliver the grim sermons with majestic seriousness but at the same time allow full measure to the happier aspects of the medieval experience. By the nature of their performances, these charming and talented artists give testimony that life, while death will inevitably throw it down, is still a romp.

(for the complete review, click here.)

10 out of 10: Recording review from Classics Today, April 2003:

Early music enthusiasts will be right at home with the familiar sounds of vielle and medieval harp—and with the ardent, personal expressive styles of the singers, who embrace and eloquently articulate the poetry and melodies of the 13th-century trouvères of northern France, including Adam de la Halle and Conon de Bethune. A significant part of the program features virelais and other songs by Machaut, whose works are distinguished by their lyricism and, in the two- and three-part pieces, lovely, flowing lines and simple yet vibrant harmonies. There’s an affecting example of a reverdie, the anonymously written “Volez-vous que je vous chant,” sung with appropriate passion and executed with solid vocal technique by soprano Lydia Heather Knutson. Conon de Bethune’s chanson “Chanson legière,” earnestly rendered by Paul Cummings, features a memorable melody that perfectly captures the text: “A song that is easy to understand is what I will make, for such is my skill that everyone can learn it easily and sing it gladly.”

The instrumental pieces and accompaniments—the latter mostly improvised from medieval stylistic models—are very well played and tastefully constructed. Vocally, Adam de la Halle’s three-part rondeau “Je muir d’amourete” (I am dying of a little lover), sung a cappella, is a highlight, its modal harmonies, sighing rhythmic structure, and plaintive melody ingeniously capturing the poem’s melancholy mood. The sound, from Mount Holyoke College’s Abbey Chapel, is clear, detailed, and bright without leaning toward harshness. Voices are natural-sounding and ideally balanced with instruments and each other. This is a very nice disc all around, well worth attention by early music lovers and by anyone looking for a taste of 13th-century popular song.

Recording review from Home Theater and Hi Fi, June 2003:

Recorded with natural resonance at a favored recording venue for early music groups, Mt. Holyoke College’s Abbey Chapel, Pastourelle offers a sampling of gifts from France’s greatest medieval composers and lyricists. If there is a theme for this disc, it derives from the words of Guillaume de Machaut, who wrote, "Music is that science which makes us laugh, and dance, and sing..."

Since so much of the instrumental repertoire from this period was passed down by oral tradition, and thus constantly subject to improvisation, the particular sensibilities of Fortune’s Wheel’s musicians are crucial to the success of the performances. Happily, both musicians and the recording itself shine. There is an elegance and tastefulness to the playing that does full justice to the subject matter. Enjoyment is enhanced by the clarity and sense of space that surround voice and instruments. Whether this disc is played in the background or appreciated in a state of deep contemplation, it provides almost 70 minutes of unalloyed pleasure.

(for the complete review, click here.)

Early Music Review, December 2002:

It is refreshing to hear the secular musical background to [Machaut’s] monophonic music. Brilliantly done, by performers who sound as if they enjoy the music.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, December 8, 2002:

Music of Christmas past—600 to 800 years past—can speak to us today. All it takes is informed, skilled musicians who are engaged with the music, with one another, and with the audience. [Fortune’s Wheel] more than met the requirements at an Early Music Now concert Saturday and Sunday…

The result was electrifying…Fortune’s Wheel gave [the dances] all the heft and eathiness they deserved, but added a professional polish and focus that gave the music shape and clarity. Cummings’ vocal ruggedness was a nice foil for Knutson’s more refined and ornamented singing, especially in the many songs with exchanges between the two.

Not many early music types know how to work a room, but Fortune’s Wheel gets it…

(for the complete review, click here.)

Shepherd Express, December 12, 2002:

Old Music Comes Alive

High-minded and historical aren’t words usually associated with breezy and fun. However, the ensemble Fortune’s Wheel made those qualities come together last weekend…The performances had fresh spontaneity and not a bit of stuffiness, making this old music come alive…

Music of this period is largely a matter of performance style, requiring lots of improvisation and arranging. Fortune’s Wheel made every note interesting, and the many-versed songs progressed with variety and musical intrigue. The best asset of Fortune’s Wheel isn’t their historical knowledge, their vocal or playing ability or even their keen sense of programming. It is their obvious love of making music together.

(for the complete review, click here.)

San Diego Reader, July 12, 2001:

[the tagline reads:] A concert of medieval music by Fortune’s Wheel leaves Jonathan Saville hyperventilating:

…Shira Kammen (is) a wonderfully sophisticated and inventive performer on vielle and medieval harp, and—when pressed into service—an expert singer…always providing a firm foundation of stylistic knowledge and creative musicianship. The same might be said of Robert Mealy, who plays those instruments with a similar expertise and flair…Kammen and Mealy are indisputably among the best in their profession.

The defining characteristic of the two Fortune’s Wheel singers is expressiveness. Unlike many performers of this repertoire, who attempt to imitate an impersonal, almost instrumental sound, Knutson and Cummings deliver the songs as intense expression of human feeling…Even their faces reflect the moment-by-moment emotions…It is an approach that works splendidly, forcing the audience to hear these songs not as archaic relics but as living art.

One might take as an example of this style Knutson’s exquisite performance of “Bele Doete.” Deftly accompanied by Robert Mealy’s vielle, Knutson sang with such emotional concentration, such inwardness and truth of feeling, and at the same time with such sheer beauty of sound, that even without knowing the content of the song a listener would have been moved to tears. Historical distance and stylistic unfamiliarity were completely transcended by the power and immediacy of the performance…

How is it that at St. James this alien music was so fascinating, so compelling, providing so much pleasure to the ear and touching the soul so deeply? Credit must be given to these exemplary performers, whose musical instincts seem to be so right in everything they do...

(for the complete review, click here.)

Isaac Namme Galindo, Identidad (Tijuana), July 2001:

Sin lugar a dudas, el público asistente tuvo el privilegio de experimentar en carne propria la increíble sensasión que un ensamble como Fortune’s Wheel es capáz de transmitir… La expresión corporal de los cantantes y acompañantes añadieron, como si no fuera suficiente todo lo anterior, un encanto aun más exquisito a este maravilloso espectáculo.

Richard Dyer, Boston Globe, June 2001:

The members of Fortune’s Wheel…caught the paradox of country vigor and courtly finesse in this delightful music by Adam de la Halle, Guillaume de Machaut, and “Anonymous.” Knutson’s freshet voice provided constant delight; Cummings proved an expert ensemble singer…Kammen and Mealy chimed in as singers when the circumstances required, and Kammen is so good at it one wished she’d had a solo…On a variety of early string instruments Kammen and Mealy played and improvised with skill, energy, authority, and style; their enjoyment of the music and the pleasure they took in each other’s company was contagious. In one amusing moment, they even plucked each other’s strings.

Ingo Negwer, Online Music Magazine, June 2001:

Mittelalterlich ging es im Nachtkonzert mit dem Ensemble Fortune’s Wheel (USA) zu. Im Reichssaal versetzten die vier Musiker das Publikum in die Zeit der französischen Trouvères, deren Tradition im 13. und 14. Jahrhundert über Adam de la Halle bis hin zu Guillaume de Machaut fortlebte. Diese Musik wird durch Improvisation erst lebendig und durch die musikantische Lust am Spiel. Fortune’s Wheel hat das Wissen um die Aufführungspraxis der Rondeaus, Chansons und Virelais verinnerlicht; Lydia Heather, Paul Cummings, Shira Kammen und Robert Mealy leben die Musik und erwecken sie damit zu neuem Leben.

(The night concert turned to the Middle Ages, with the ensemble Fortune’s Wheel (USA). The four musicians sent the public in the Reichssaal back to the time of the French trouvères, whose tradition flourished in the 13th and 14th century, from Adam de la Halle up to Guillaume de Machaut. Only through improvisation and the pleasure of performing does this music come to life. Fortune’s Wheel has the knowledge to reveal the performance-practice of rondeaus, chansons, and virelais; [the members] live the music and so bring it to new life.)

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 22, 2001:

In what could have been a dry, academic performance, Fortune’s Wheel provided an educational and pleasantly witty reading of the music of the trouvères. A masterfully selected program … the last few songs engaged in some vocal pyrotechnics, with trills and other ornamentation in splendid array.

Michael Zwiebach, Early Music, August 2000:

The lower-profile ensembles in the [Berkeley Early Music] festival provided some of its most interesting programmes … A new ensemble calling themselves Fortune’s Wheel offered a far-ranging and vividly played concert of French medieval song.

Sarah Cahill, Express (San Francisco), 1999:

The four performers danced while they sang and played … Old English and the 14th century seemed not so archaic after all. Fortune’s Wheel proved to us above all that we don’t have to get bent out of shape about medieval music. It may seem esoteric, but … it lives and breathes.

Donald Rosenberg, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, 1999:

Fortune’s Wheel approaches everything with a genial brio and intensity of purpose that draws the listener deep into the music-making. Thanks to the vibrancy of the playing and singing, the program had a neat balance between the naughty and the nice. Fortune’s Wheel takes its medieval music seriously and then transforms the music at hand and voice into living, breathing art.

(for the complete review, click here.)

Susan Larson, The Boston Globe, 1997:

Scholarly, playful, almost painfully in tune, the imaginative vielle playing of Robert Mealy and Shira Kammen matched the stirring singing of Lydia Heather Knutson and Paul Cummings. This is a group to watch!

Juan Arturo Brennan, La Jornada (Mexico City), 1996:

Towards the end of the Festival, the group Fortune’s Wheel offered a couple of concerts of truly the highest caliber. The second of these, dedicated to the music of 13th century Spain, was a splendid lesson in style, diction, tuning, perfect balance and total engagement with the music...The group demonstrated at length throughout this brilliant concert an impeccable feeling of balance and clarity, and were able to give this music the sensual and sinuous contours necessary to bring us back to the original Arabs and Jews of these ancient pieces.

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lydia knutson  ·  aaron sheehan  ·  shira kammen  ·  robert mealy