Monday, June 20, 2011

Lerma: a musical pilgrimage

I suppose one of the disadvantages of having performed music on some level for over 30 years is that I am very rarely surprised by a concert anymore. Which is not to say that I’m jaded; I can derive great enjoyment from (or be terribly disappointed by) a concert like anyone else. But while it seems as though standing ovations at concerts are almost de rigueur nowadays, I’ve been in enough performance situations over the years to know all too well how rare the truly special ones are. Which makes the concert I heard last week in Spain all the more memorable.

It was also somewhat serendipitous. My wife and I had been planning a vacation to Catalonia in early June for several months when my friend and mentor Douglas Kirk told me he would be playing a concert in the little Castilian town of Lerma during the time we would be in Spain. I wouldn’t normally drive more than half way across a country on my vacation just to hear a concert, but this was no ordinary concert.

Even the vast majority of musicians are unaware of the special place—though admittedly a minor one in the grand scheme of things—Lerma has in the history of music. Under the reign of Philip III of Spain in the early 17th century, the Duke of Lerma was a powerful and influential minister who used his sway to enrich his native town. Among other works, he endowed several convents and caused the beautiful Collegiate church of San Pedro to be built. He also hired musicians, including a wind band, to perform at church services, and this small ensemble had several manuscripts from which they played. One of these was rediscovered only quite recently, and it was the basis of Douglas’ doctoral thesis. As a result, it was also this music that I cut my early music teeth on some 20 years ago while at McGill. So when Douglas told me that the Spain concert was to be a recreation of a Gabrieli Consort recording based on this manuscript—in the very same church in Lerma where this music was originally performed (and where the CD had been recorded ten years ago)—it was virtually impossible for me not to go.

After Venice—where the Gabrielis and Monteverdi (heroes to early brass players the world over) worked at San Marco—Lerma is my most important Mecca. So I suppose it's fitting that Lerma is just a 20-minute drive south of Burgos, one of the main stops on the Camino de Santiago. And though my own pilgrimage here was not the religious sort, just to walk around the town, which has undergone some fairly significant and tasteful restorations in recent years, was a little surreal and mystical. To see the “Lerma manuscript” itself was also a wonderful moment. As Douglas describes, when he first saw it, the manuscript was piled carelessly with some other ancient chant books in a dingy, dusty storeroom. Happily, it is now prominently displayed in a lovely glass case.

The "Lerma Manuscript," opened to the hymn Pange Lingua.
But without a doubt, the highlight of our little 1,100-kilometre side trip was the concert itself. The Gabrieli Consort is one of the best early music ensembles on the planet, so just to hear them live was in itself a treat; but to hear them perform this music in this setting was like a minor miracle. The acoustics in the church of San Pedro are superb: warmer than you’d expect for a stone church, and just enough reverberation to provide a full, rich sound, but not so much that the individual lines of polyphony get lost. The concert was, as expected, simply outstanding from start to finish, but even here, one piece stood out: a setting of the Salve Regina by Tom├ís Luis de Victoria for eight voices, performed a capella. The piece is 12 minutes long and a tour de force. But this particular performance—these singers in this church, a delicious meal of Spanish lamb and half a bottle of Spanish wine in my belly—was quite literally unbearable in its beauty. By the end, tears were streaming down my face, and I could hardly breathe.

The Collegiate church of San Pedro, in Lerma, Spain.
To be moved by music is to be human, and it is music’s emotional power that drives most musicians to do what they do, but even knowing this, the depth of feeling I experienced while listening to that Salve Regina took me completely by surprise; never in all my years has a piece of music affected me so profoundly. I can only describe it as a life-altering moment. I’m not the same person I was before.

If vacations are like bubbles in time, small capsules of dreaming embedded into the solid reality of our everyday lives, this excursion to Lerma was a bubble within a bubble, having only the most tenuous relation to reality. And yet the memory of those days, of that concert and the breathtaking Salve Regina, far from being dreamlike, is sharp and vivid.

Unwinding with the musicians after the concert on the patio of a bar in Lerma’s lovely main square, opposite the old ducal palace (now a luxury hotel of the Parador chain), the eminently drinkable local wine flowing freely, I felt almost as if I had played the concert myself, rather than being a mere spectator. Certainly I felt the same mixture of elation and emotional exhaustion that comes after playing a good concert. And as the glow of the setting early summer sun reflected off the Duke’s restored palace, I indulged in the fantasy that the Duke himself was standing in one of the upper windows, smiling down in approval at the revelry below.

The ducal palace, now a Parador hotel.

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