From laments to jocose songs, Musica Antiqua brightens Dark Ages

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The Perry Fine Arts Series presented the medieval musical group Musica Antiqua Sunday afternoon at the Perry Performing Arts Center, and the 50 people attending were hands-on participants, singing along on the final round and inspecting the instruments after the show.

“Musica Antiqua” is a diverse group of performers recreating the music of the Renaissance and Middle Ages on their collection of 12th to 17th century replica instruments. This unique ensemble was formed in 1967 at Iowa State University to help bring early music and song to the Midwest and beyond.

Carl Bleyle, director of the group, started almost 50 years ago with three authentic musical instruments. Alan Spohnheimer and Dee Dreeszen have been members of Musica Antiqua since the beginning. String instrumentalist Steve Kelleher rounds out the quartet, which plays for conventions, schools classes, Renaissance fairs and madrigal dinners.

Together the group plays more than 100 instruments. They rarely travel with their full collection, according to Dreeszen, which spans from the 12th to 17th centuries and includes a wide range of wind and string instruments.

Alan Spohnheimer played the enormous contrabass recorder on the 16th-century song "Rondo," by Teilman Susato.
Alan Spohnheimer played the enormous contrabass recorder on the 16th-century song “Rondo,” by Teilman Susato.

The group has a collection of eight recorders, each made in a different size to create different notes, including the enormous contrabass recorder standing more than 6 feet high. Some of the group’s instruments are the only ones in the U.S., such as a small, intricately decorated and carved pipe organ called an organetto.

While the instruments are modern reproductions not thousand-year-old pieces actually used during the Renaissance or Middle Ages, each piece is designed as an authentic replica of original instruments now held in museums.

Among the audience’s favorites was a small, fiddle-like instrument called a rebec. Steve Kelleher, whose mother, Betty Kelleher, drove down from Fort Dodge specially for Sunday’s performance, played the rebec in a tender rendition of the 14th-century Italian canto, “Lamento di Tristan.”

In Gerard David's "Virgin among the Virgins" (c.1509), the angel on the right plays a rebec. The angel on the left plays a lute.
In Gerard David’s “Virgin among the Virgins” (c.1509), the angel on the right plays a rebec. The angel on the left plays a lute.

Dreeszen is primarily a player of wind instruments, but she also took a turn on the harp, and she played a hammered dulcimer on a 17th-century Scottish song, “The Flowers of the Forest.”

The players also wore realistic European costumes and attained for an authentic feel in the instruments, which are made out of woods such as sycamore, maple and walnut.

A highlight of the performance occurred when the director called a talented local vocalist to the stage in the person of Dr. Randy McCaulley. The former superintendent of the Perry Community School District and three-term Perry City Council member took the vocal part in Josquin de Pres’ “Jocose Song for Louis XII.” McCaulley’s basso profundo easily met the demands of the melody’s range, which was one note, and he delivered it with a sustained expressiveness rarely heard in our modern world.

The audience also joined in for a round of “Derrie Ding Din Dasson,” bringing the show to a jovial close.

Musica Antiqua also tries to teach audiences more about the instruments by explaining the backstory of their names, and even some familiar instruments have a story behind them. They invited the audience on to the stage after the one-hour show and spent almost as much time again in answering questions and explaining the history and provenance of our familiar symphony instruments.

The next event in the Perry Fine Arts concert series will be the Fourth of July Musical Extravaganza and Ice Cream Social at the First United Methodist Church in Perry. Brain Hansen will sing and play the piano.

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