Carolina Pro Musica presented a program of lessons and carols for the Christmas season at St. Mary’s Chapel near downtown Charlotte. The recital demonstrated to its audience both the joys and the hazards of early music recitals presented on period instruments. The joys are the discovery by audience members of hitherto unheard works and the intended sound of works that they may have previously heard only filtered through 19th century romanticism. The hazards are spending too much time analyzing what one is hearing. 

While I did experience some emotional highs, I fear this concert appealed more to my head than to my heart. I frequently found myself analyzing a selection, considering its role in the history of Western music, thinking of what was to come next in musical development rather than leaning back and reveling in the work at hand. An example would be the Erhard Bodenschatz “Joseph lieber, Joseph mein,” a competent 16th century precursor to J.S. Bach’s masterpieces. The Bodenschatz carol was informative but not memorable. This German Lutheran composer may have been a worthy, and certainly an interesting, precursor but as the saying goes, “Erhard Bodenschatz is no Johann Sebastian Bach.”

I also spent time pondering the 1582 Finnish songbook Piae Cantiones, a compilation from which four carols had been chosen for this concert. Some selections from Piae Cantiones moved me. I especially liked the opening “Personent Hodie” and the “Divinum Mysterium” that occurred later in the concert. Other high points included Caspar Othmayr’s “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland” with its fine counterpoint and “Cuncti simus concanentes” taken from the 1399 song collection compiled at the Benedictine monastery of the Black Virgin near Barcelona. The Catalonian syncopation of the latter work was a welcome relief from the uniform rhythmic treatments favored by the German composers who dominated the program.

The Carolina Pro Musica musicians were Karen Hite Jacob (artistic director, harpsichord, recorder, harp, percussion, voice), Holly Wright Maurer (viola da gamba, recorder, voice), Rebecca Miller Saunders (soprano, percussion) and Edward Ferrell (recorders, guitar, voice). All of these players are well schooled in period music and performed with authority. This program was presented with just one male musician, and thus without the ability to have two male vocal parts in any of the works.

A capacity crowd of some 120 people attended the 7:00 pm performance; a second performance was to follow at 8:30 pm. My principal disappointment was the dry acoustics of St. Mary’s Chapel. Vocal technique for the period of early music includes no pitch vibrato, so without the acoustic presence provided by a resonant performing space, the music lacks full body. The entire December 5 program sounded thin to those who have heard performances at Belmont Abbey College. Carolina Pro Musica has available for sale a fine CD of their 2008 Christmas Concert, and to my ears that was a more satisfying concert than this year’s production, primarily because of the fine acoustics in the Abbey Basilica.