SF Classical Voice: “Asteria Performs Songs of Burgundy”

Many people seemed to observe that this year’s Berkeley Festival and Exhibition was somewhat smaller in scale than previous years’ festivals had been, and that audiences too were smaller than in years past. Yet the festival’s offerings were met with great enthusiasm, and the conversations I overheard while walking from concert to concert unvaryingly described delightful and transcendent experiences. The duo Asteria – Sylvia Rhyne, soprano; Eric Redlinger, lute and tenor – captivated their audience on the evening of June 9 at Hertz Hall with a program of largely Burgundian chansons, with a few sacred and English pieces offered, as well. Asteria was largely unknown before winning Early Music America’s medieval/Renaissance music competition in 2004, but from the audience’s reception on Friday, it is unlikely that they will remain unknown for long.

The duo Asteria

The two performers offer different strengths: Rhyne has had an international career in musical theater, and she uses her acting abilities to bring the texts to life. Her voice is beautifully nuanced and works well for this repertoire. Redlinger has a soft and gentle voice, supportive but not obtrusive. His lute playing is delicately finessed, and his knowledge of the period and repertoire immense, as he showed when he spoke about their encore piece, Languir me fais by Sermisy. Together, Rhyne and Redlinger give a sensitive and heartfelt rendering of these chansons, connecting intimately with each other and with the audience, using pianos for dramatic effect, and varying their “instrumentation” so that some pieces have lute introductions and some have only one singer.

Their program offered many wonderful songs, including an anonymous piece in three languages, Novo Profusi Gaudio, Tant est mignonne by Dufay, Pour prison and Seule esgarée by Binchois, and Morton’s Le souvenir de vous me tue. Asteria singled out one of the pieces for its text: Dueil angoisseux by Binchois, to a poem by Christine de Pisan, written after the early death of her husband, to whom she was clearly devoted. This was an exception to the prevailing texts, which all celebrated the Lady or the Virgin, both of which were the standard tropes of the day. At the end, after their encore, they invited Shira Kammen to join them on one final piece, citing her profound influence on them and celebrating the rich repertoire of the medieval period. (K.M.)

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