Thursday, 11 August 2016

Bernardus Mediaeval Vielle & Voice "St George & the Dragon" Exeter Cathedral Thursday 4 August Buckfast Abbey Saturday 6 August 2016

Vielle: Craig Resta
Countertenor (& Bell): Jay White
Buckfast Abbey
Saturday 6 August

It is now more than one year since David Acres visited from South Carolina to conduct the Counterpoint Choir at Buckfast Abbey, with special guest, operatic countertenor James Bowman (Saturday 20 June 2015).

In Charleston SC David has founded and directs a new choir, "The King's Counterpoint". Prior to founding the choir, during his first year in the United States, David lived in Cleveland Ohio. Musically active as ever, he founded "Contrapunctus" with members of the existing "Quire Cleveland" and "Trinity Chamber Choir" - including his wife Judith Acres.

This week the cultural exchange between Devon and the American Mid-West continued with the arrival of two very talented musicians from Kent State University in Ohio. Jay White is a countertenor in David Acres' "Contrapunctus" and Matthew Oltman's "Chanticleer". He is also a Professor of Voice at Kent State. Craig Resta is Professor of Instrumental Music Education, also at Kent State.

Vielle: Craig Resta
Together Jay and Craig form the duo "Bernardus". The name derives from the twelfth century French troubadour Bernart de Ventadorn. Craig plays the mediaeval five-stringed predecessor of the violin, the fidel or viuola, known in French as the 'vielle'. With this evocative accompaniment, Jay recites mediaeval histories and sings beautiful mediaeval hymns.

The combined sound, in Exeter Cathedral Nave and especially in Buckfast Abbey Quire, provides an overwhelming immersive experience of mediaeval culture and music. The intense sadness of Craig's D minor pedal on the Vielle, and Jay's bewitching countertenor voice, strip away the centuries to revisit the beliefs and fears of a bygone age.

Vielle: Craig Resta  Countertenor: Jay White
The selection for this visit was taken from Brother Jacobus de Voragine's "Golden Legend", a book published around 1260AD. This ambitious hagiography describes the lives of over one hundred and eighty of the Christian Saints.

For their English audience, the story of St George and the Dragon was chosen. Brother Jacobus was writing about events one thousand years earlier, during the reign of Diocletian and Maximium. George's confrontation with a mythical beast, and rescue of a royal princess, may be read as an allegory for his elective martyrdom at the hands of the Prefect Dacianus at Gerona in northern Iberia, as a model for early Christians.

However, Jacobus relates both stories, encouraging the listener to take the dragon story literally. Jay's reading is very compelling, creating a tangible sense of dread and foreboding - but George, as we know, is triumphant in the end. By contrast, the story of his martyrdom is much more distressing. Despite George's military status, he willingly submits to the will of Dacian and endures torture and death to demonstrate his commitment to Christianity.

Countertenor: Jay White
There is constant confusion as George, who is able to render poison and molten lead harmless using the magical sign of the cross, nevertheless endures other tortures without recourse to magic. Likewise the Christian God, who is ultimately able to overcome and kill both the non-christian priests of Dacian's religion, and Dacian himself, does not do so until it is too late to save George - who is executed by decapitation.

It is fascinating to consider how these stories would have been understood by readers and audiences during the thirteenth century, and subsequent centuries. The hauntingly sweet sound of the vielle and Jay's engaging recitation and singing (of three beautiful Latin hymns) - punctuated by the altar bell - allowed us to get some insight into the thinking, and emotional response, of the contemporary population.

After a brief visit to Wales, Jay and Craig will perform "St George and the Dragon" for an Irish audience at the Anglican Church of St Audoens in Dublin this Saturday 13 August at 3pm.

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