Fortune’s Wheel

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

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.

The last time they exerted their charms in San Diego was in a 2001 program of trouvére songs at St. James by-the-Sea, and their recent return to that venue, once again 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.

There is so much charm here that it might blur one’s critical faculties. Would these people really make such a good case for their repertoire if you couldn’t see them? Fortune’s Wheel’s first CD (Pastourelle—Dorian 93245), which reproduces the French program we heard from them two years ago, makes it clear that their purely musical virtues are quite sufficient to carry the day. On that recording, the high quality of their art stands on its own: always expressive, always truly musical, always respectful of tradition (though never pedantically so) and—often as not—full of joy and fun.

The group’s latest program, Mirie it is, presented them with difficulties of a special kind. A great deal of medieval French music has come down to us with both words and tune, and to realize it in a modern performance what is needed is an informed feeling for the style and an ability to improvise historically suitable accompaniments and embellishments. The Fortune’s Wheel musicians are exceptionally good at this, neither too bold nor too cautious, but with a wonderful air of spontaneity and freedom.

Medieval England, which was the subject of their recent program, offers an abundant collection of lyric poetry, both secular and sacred, that was apparently meant to be sung; but relatively few of the melodies have survived. This means that concerts of medieval English music tend to include the same few items, over and over, including the Virgin-praising Edi beo thu, hevene-queene (“Blessed be thou, heaven-queen”); the somber reflections on the miseries of the world Ar ne kuth ich sorghe non (“Previously I knew no sorrow”) and Man mei longe him lives weene (“Man may suppose he will have a long life”); the love-songs Fuwëles in the frith (“Birds in the woods”) and Bryd one brere (“Bird on a briar”); and the lyrics on the pleasures of the warm season (Sumer is icumen in—“Summer is coming in”) and the griefs of the cold (Myrie it is—“Merry it is while summer lasts”)—all of which were to be heard at St. James (sometimes in truncated form—only three out of the six stanzas of Edi beo thu, for example).

The Fortune’s Wheel musicians, however, do not always restrict themselves to this legitimate repertoire. When there is a text they want to perform, and no medieval tune for it survives, occasionally they compose it themselves. “They,” here, basically means Shira Kammen (although she and Robert Mealy collaborated on devising, arranging, or creating the several instrumental dance medleys that enlivened the program)… William Dunbar‘s In secreit place this hyndir nycht (“In a secret place last night”) was listed as “arr. Kammen”—which did not explicitly let us know that there is no medieval tune for Dunbar‘s 15th century poem, and that the marvelous tune we heard had been invented by Shira Kammen.

This latter work, which provided the concert with a splendid culmination, is a dialogue between a callow adolescent boy who wants sex and an experienced woman who holds him off with affectionate insults until finally submitting to his pleas. The poem is a very funny parody of medieval courtly-love conventions, with all the romantic idealism removed and nothing left but the lively lusts of the flesh… Fortune‘s Wheel turned this satirical literary dialogue into a real piece of staged theater, with tenor Sheehan and soprano Knutson playing the lovers with great (though discreet) zest.

Earlier, the same two singers had engaged in a dialogue of a quite different stamp, the sublime sequence Stond wel mother under rode (“Stand well, mother, under the cross”), where the interlocutors are Mary and the crucified and dying Jesus… [This dialogue] focuses on the human pathos of the mother-son relationship in the crucifixion. It takes part in the new, humanized emotionalism of Catholic faith that rises with the Franciscan movement.

Stond wel mother is one of the most touching manifestations of this new attitude, and it was particularly so in the operatically passionate performance by Knutson and Sheehan… Fortune’s Wheel, with their usual sure instincts for musical effectiveness, revealed through their dramatization what a stunning fusion of text and music this composition is.

…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.

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lydia knutson  ·  aaron sheehan  ·  shira kammen  ·  robert mealy