Lake Champlain Weekly: The Magic of the Lute

by BENJAMIN POMMERANCE

It’s the stuff that fairy tales are made of.  Boy meets girl.  Boy and girl rendezvous in an enchanted place, joining in harmony beneath the clear blue sky.  Boy and girl decide to meet again, and again, and yet again, until the couple is joining in concert every week in their private, peaceable kingdom.  And in the end, as everybody knows, they all live happily ever after.

This is no fairy tale, but the real tale of two musicians searching for a variation on their life’s work and finding it in a harmonious partnership.  There’s an epilogue to this chronicle, one as intricately woven as a 15th-century French chanson, a story within a story in which North Country audiences have a chance this Sunday to play a supporting role.  This is the fairy tale after the fairy tale ending, the story of Eric Redlinger and Sylvia Rhyne and an uncommon bond called Asteria — a story that all began with the magic of the lute.

It was the lute that brought the duo together.  Some legends rely on fairy god-mothers to unite the main couple, this one casts a string instrument that has lived in Europe since at least 711 A.D. in this primary part.  Rhyne, an accomplished Broadway actress best known for leading roles in Phantom of the Opera, Sound of Music and Sweeney Todd, had never seen a lute outside of paintings; Redlinger, a noted composer, performer, sound designer and scholar of works from Renaissance motets to contemporary electronic music, had devoted much of his life to playing one.  When the two met, a chance introduction at rehearsal for an all-volunteer choir called Renaissance Street Singers, conversation naturally turned to the ancient guitar-like instrument that Redlinger loved.  They decided to meet the following week, gathering in New York City’s Central Park a few hours before the next Street Singers practice.  He was to bring his lute.  She was to bring her enthusiasm.  At that moment, the seeds of Asteria were planted.

It wasn’t long before they began to grow.  Rhyne and Redlinger had their Central Park meeting, and the lutenist discovered that Rhyne brought with her something beyond mere curiousity:  a rich soprano voice that had enchanted audiences on the Great White Way for years.  Redlinger, too, brought along something besides the promised instrument: a collection of 14th-century songs, polyphonic masterpieces begging to be sung.  The lutenist showed the copies to the soprano.  She smiled back.  And there, nestled in a grassy corner hidden between city and sky, Rhyne and Redlinger began to sing.

Rhyne still savors the memory of that first impromptu rehearsal.  “The sound, and the approach, felt so right that we knew we had found something special,”  she recalls.  “Our three voices — the lute’s, Eric’s (a high tenor) and mine — all have different timbres, but somehow, they wrap around each other, just as the music does, to create a blend that always arouses attention.

The lute had worked its magic.  The following week, the main couple of this tale returned to Central Park together, and again, the musical chemistry just felt right.  They met again one week later, performing different music with the same result.  Before long, the weekly meetings were a tradition, an unspoken agreement to join in song one afternoon a week, squirrels and trees and park passerbys serving as their audience.  Then Rhyne and Redlinger received a seal of approval they’d never forget.  “We visted Eric’s mother in Vermont,” Rhyne says, “and her own musical partner heard us sing and instantly engaged us for a concert series at Marlborough College.  We were so well received that we realized for the first time that what we were doing spoke to others and not just to ourselves.”  Fairy tale ending?  More like a fairy tale beginning.  The seeds of Asteria, planted that fruitful afternoon in Central Park, were about to burst into full bloom.  Rhyne says that the official formation of this musical partnership was a gradual realization.  “We were in the midst of recording some of our music for our own enjoyment,” Rhyne explains, “and so it seemed natural to publish a ‘real’ album to share with a larger audience.  And thus began our recording and performing career as Asteria.”

What a beginning it was.  Asteria received rave reviews, capturing Early Music America’s first Unicorn Prize for Medieval and Renaissance Music in 2004 and earning a host of other glowing critiques at performances around the world.  Still, the meteoric rise didn’t change the happy couple’s musical outlook.  Instead, Redlinger and Rhyne rededicated themselves to truly comprehending the works they were performing — not just the notes, but the composers, the text and the settings in which these components united into song.  “As our work in the field has deepened, we realized that we couldn’t get to the heart of the music without spending a lot of time in the country and in the castles where it was created and performed,” Rhyne says.  “So we gathered our resources, and went to live in France for a full year from 2006-07.”

Here, the fairy tale couple finally found themselves a castle, the Chateau de Germolles, the last remaining bastion of the Valois Dukes of Burgundy.  For the two musicians, it was a field trip into paradise.  The Valois Dukes, the primary French patrons of culture at the turn of the 15h century, were responsible for an outpouring of musical innovation in their day, fostering immense artistic creativity in their royal court.  Their accommodations at Germolles were so nice that Rhyne and Redlinger simply had to return.  “We have now returned to Burgundy for two residencies at the chateau, sleeping in the Duchess’ bedroom and performing our music in the halls of the castle,”  Rhyne says of Asteria’s unique vacation arrangements.   “It has been a tremendous experience, and we will be retuning again next spring.”

Of course, a quest for knowledge has more than one destination.  Rhyne and Redlinger’s travels have taken them throughout Europe in search of elusive keys to the past, knights in shining armor on a mission to prevent the artistic extinction of an often-overlooked genre.  Last summer, their journey took them to Dijon to study original manuscripts of mensural notation, a music form in which a note’s value can change depending on the other note values around it.  “It has been truly rewarding to spend so much time getting to know the music in this way,” Rhyne says.  “The feel of the parchment, the colors used in the illuminations, the quality of the ink as the thick and thin lines are drawn — all of these tell you so much.”

Including the music slated for this Sunday.  In the latest installment of Hill & Hollow Music’s tribute to the music of France, Asteria will take the stage at Saranac’s Church in the Hollow for a program of late-14th and early-15th century songs from the Court of Burgundy.  Most of the selections are unfamiliar to even the most devout music lovers — possibly because they haven’t been played in hundreds of years.  “They almost all stem from the earliest sections of the celebrated Ox 213 manuscript currently in the Bodleian library in Oxford,” Redlinger explains.  “This manuscript is the largest of its kind and contains an unusually large number of unique works.  Unfortunately, many of these pieces are also corrupt in one way or another, missing either musical lines or entire sections of text.”  The result, he adds, has been a tremendous reclamation effort for Asteria.  “Because of the high quality of the music, as well as its great historical importance, we’ve undertaken the project to bring this music back to life,” Redlinger says.  “This means you will be hearing extraordinarily beautiful music that you can’t find on any recording.”

The story of Asteria will continue from here.  The chapters of this work-in-progress are still to be determined.  This Sunday, area audiences have a chance to be a part of this ongoing tale at a country church in Saranac, an opportunity to hear rare music from a rare partnership.  As concert-goers listen to the strains of this early Burgundian fare, perhaps their minds will wander to a special spot in Central Park, an enchanted kingdom where two people met to begin a beautiful story that is far, far from over — a fairy tale that all began with the magic of the lute.

Vol. 9, issue 16
November 12, 2008

 

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