Jonathan Saville, 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, andwhen pressed into servicean 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. The function of instrumentalists such as Kammen and Mealy is double. They are performers, butlike the jongleurs, their medieval predecessorsthey are also composers. The program of trouvere music Fortune’s Wheel presented at St. James consisted largely of vocal compositions, for which the written sources provide nothing but the words and the tune. It is up to modern performers to invent appropriate instrumental accompaniment, using their historical imagination and their own intuitions. The instruments reinforced the vocal lines, doubling them, adding embellishments, occasionally supplying a drone, or perhaps improvising a countermelody. 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. They adopt a suitable tone (whimsical, or ardent, or pained, or tragic) for each piece, and within the song they vary their vocal expressiondiscreetly but perceptiblyaccording to the text and the melodic shape. Even their faces reflect the moment-by-moment emotions (quite theatrically in the case of Cummings, who looks like a younger John Travolta doing high drama). 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 the 13th-century chanson de toile “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.
The second half of the concert moved into more difficult territory, and the excellence of the performances was therefore even more impressive. Guillaume de Machauteight of whose secular songs were performedwas the greatest composer (and one of the greatest poets) of the 14th Century; but the strangeness of his style is so extreme that even devotees of early music tend to honor him more in the abstract than in actual pleasurable listening. How is it then 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 both to these exemplary performers, whose musical instincts seem to be so right in everything they do, and to the composer, whose greatnessgiven the chancecan overcome the barriers of time, culture, and style, and declare itself unmistakably to anyone willing to listen.
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lydia knutson · aaron sheehan · shira kammen · robert mealy