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Reviews

Daniel and the Lions

By Judith Newmark, Post-Dispatch Theater Critic, St. Louis
01/31/2004

"Time travel -- the best kind, time travel of the imagination -- came to town on Friday night, when Early Music New York cast its spell for St. Louis Cathedral Concerts. Its performance of a medieval liturgical drama, "Daniel and the Lions," melded twin impulses: the urge to worship and the urge to create art. The vivid performance was made to order for its setting, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.

Director Frederick Renz's ensemble infused the Basilica with the haunting sounds of chants and strange old instruments. Visually, the performance was just as rich, incorporating colorful costumes, snazzy lighting effects and staging that echoed the stylized poses of figures on ancient triptychs. The troupe delivers performances so lucid that you don't need to understand the words, which were in Latin. Playing the prophet Daniel, James Ruff soared in an eloquent aria explaining the meaning of "the writing on the wall" to King Belshazzar (Paul Shipper). Shipper created two memorable characters himself.

First -- in a purple silk crown that resemblef the Kremlin - he won hearts as the king who, touchingly, greets his doom by playing a sad tune on a lute. Later, he created another appealing character, the virtuous but comical prophet Habukkuk. When an angel - an imposing, sweet-voiced figure portrayed by a man named Ryland Angel, of all things - visits Habukkuk, he shakes with fear, throwing his hands into the air. Who wouldn't! But he also obeys and helps Daniel avoid the wrath of the lion, a magnificent, outsized puppet brought to life by three men.

Early Music New York makes the story easy to understand on many levels at once -- and without benefit of language. For example, its version of the defeat of Belshazzar -- which involves an army of men in chain mail, marching to drums and bagpipes -- replaces the image of two antique Eastern powers in conflict with an image that the first audiences of "Daniel" might have easily understood.

It's an image of the Crusades, an image of the West at war with the East. Can we perhaps find some way we might relate to that today? Scampering through time, Early Music New York invites us to visit the past and discover a mirror. It adds up to an impressive feat of the imagination, and of hard work."

Concert offers look at 12th-century pageantry

By Robert Eisele, Special to the Star, Kansas City

"Courtesy of the Friends of Chamber Music, The Ensemble for Early Music reconstructed the biblical drama "Daniel and Lions," performed Saturday in the Friends of Chamber Music series, from a 12th- century manuscript found in France. Friends of Chamber Music founder and President Cynthia Siebert helped set the mood for the presentation of "Daniel and the Lions" by the Ensemble for Early Music, performed Saturday night at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral.

In the 12th century, she told the sold-out crowd, the audience would have been largely illiterate and would have been gathering in an unheated church, which served as the center of their social and spiritual world. The illumination would have been by candlelight, and the theatrical effects would have been minimal.

And so the performance began, with a prelude of reeds, woodwinds and percussion as the musicians entered down the cathedral's center aisle. They were followed shortly by a procession of elaborately robed vocalists, and the biblical story of the prophet Daniel and his brush with death in the lions den unfolded ceremoniously before the assembled crowd.

Grace and Holy's stone, iron and wood environs provided a perfect setting for this total immersion into medieval musical theater. "Daniel" was a wonderfully atmospheric musical journey into another time and place, enlivened by some superb voices in the central roles.

Chief among these was James Ruff as Daniel, who lent a magnetic physical presence as well as a nuanced tenor voice to the title character. He was matched by Paul Shipper, whose blustering bass informed the dual roles of King Belshazzar and Habukkuk.

Ryland Angel brought a regal bearing to the roles of the Queen and Angel, and Gregory Purnhagen's authoritative baritone made for a commanding King Darius.

A small ensemble, credited in the program as "court musicians," provided the skillfully executed musical accompaniment on exotic early instruments, including a variety of percussion and woodwinds, as well as one cumbersome piece that resembled a modern-day bagpipe.

The costumes, supervised by Carol Sherry, were appropriately lavish, with a particularly striking bit of puppetry employed for the fierce-looking lion of the title. The beast required three puppeteers, one for each of its front paws and one for its ferocious gold head, which was trimmed with metallic-colored fabric to approximate a flowing, tawny mane.

My only complaint was the lack of supertitles, which made following the Latin narrative a bit of a challenge, particularly in the darkened cathedral. But that's a minor quibble for what was an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable evening."

'Daniel and the Lions' REVIEW 
• Reviewed Jan. 31, 2004 at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral 
• In attendance, 600 (approx.) 
• Presented by Friends of Chamber Music

A Baroque Christmas

"Reviving the Baroque Approach to Christmas - Ensemble for Early Music's program at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine on Sunday afternoon opened with a medley of popular carols. Popular, that is, in 17th-century Scotland.

Packing a world tour into an hour and a quarter, the ensemble offered Baroque music from six countries in small, telling snapshots. ...Frederick Renz, founder and director of the Early Music Foundation, arranged... a French suite...filled with quotations from popular carols, ...the only tune familiar to today's audience: the gigue, which [Marc Antoine] Charpentier wrote as a drinking song in a Molière play, ...now known as "Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella" (Mr. Renz gave it a different, 17th-century text). German chorales and jovial English ballads ...solo passages in a humorous form of Spanish song called a xacarilla ... showed off the ensemble work of the six vocal soloists ... Attractive ...Melodious ...Warm ... Blending ...Rich ...sang with Feeling and Color.

"Ensemble for Early Music, directed by Frederick Renz, ...A mainstay of the New York early-music scene, ...fine work." - New York Times, December 2002

Ex cathedra Records

"A Medieval Christmas, A Renaissance Christmas, A Baroque Christmas." New York's Ensemble for Early Music, directed by Frederick Renz. - Critic's Choice... "a delectable mix."

The bins in record stores are brimming with Christmas music this time of year. Here are a few of my favorite CD's.

The Metropolitan Museum has become perhaps the prime purveyor of quality Christmas music in New York... recordings as well, ...notably a three-disc sequence by the Ensemble for Early Music: "A Medieval Christmas," "A Renaissance Christmas" and "A Baroque Christmas," documenting concerts given there over the last three years. The programs are diverse. They reflect the wide-ranging curiosity and research of Frederick Renz, the ensemble's veteran director. These are variegated adventures of more than historical interest. Polish, Rusticity and Grandeur of Spirit. Irresistible. Can't get enough... I'm addicted..." James R. Oestreich, The New York Times, December 15, 2002

Heinrich Ysaac - Renaissance Chameleon

"On Saturday, October 19, the Ensemble for Early Music kicked off its 2002-2003 season with a concert of music by the Flemish composer Heinrich Ysaac. Ysaac composed both secular and sacred music, and during the late 15th Century - early 16th Century was a favorite composer of Lorenzo di Medici and Maximilian I, Emperor -elect of the Holy Roman Empire. The performance by the Ensemble was as close to perfect as human musicians can get. Strong in both high and low registers, the angelic voices (nine male singers), were complemented by (three) sackbuts.

One of the joys of listening to the Ensemble for Early Music is their programming: sacred and secular songs mixing subject matter and tempos insure a lively concert with plenty of pleasant surprises. ...This is the Ensemble's twenty-ninth season. For an early music group to survive that long, and maintain the extraordinary standards that this group does, is a tribute to the skill and scholarship of Frederick Renz, the Founding Director of the group... . The Ensemble is arguably the best early music group in New York and perhaps the country. It's good to have them back for another season." New York Stringer, November-December, 2002

"A revered New York institution in the hands of Frederick Renz" - The New York Times, 2001

Daniel and the Lions

"Daniel and the Lions...in the hands of Frederick Renz...spectacular!"  -New York Times, October 2001

"The Ensemble for Early Music, directed by Frederick Renz, is arguably the best Early Music group in New York, and perhaps the country . On October 12 and 13, they staged performances of the medieval liturgical play, "Daniel and the Lions," that upheld their reputation and delighted the large audience at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

Based on the biblical Book of Daniel, "Daniel and the Lions" combined instrumental music, song and special effects into a stunning auditory and visual tour de force... outstanding were the Court Musicians , playing a total of 11 different kinds of instruments between them... The singers...were excellent without exception... Of special note was the lion...frightening when Daniel entered the den, and cuddly after the appearance of the angel, and was an altogether satisfying stage effect." New York Stringer, October 15, 2001

Daniel and the Lions at the Spoleto Festival (Italy)

"One of the most followed performances throughout the 44th Spoleto Festival is definitely Daniel and the Lions , the medieval liturgical drama par excellence, which was previously presented in Spoleto [1983], if [I'm] not mistaken.

The work - drawn from a British manuscript – has an exceptional value both a historical point of view and a musicological approach, aspects marvelously focused on in the congruous and ample notes of Luigi Bellingardi. But scholarly interest aside, what truly matters is that, thanks to the production of New York's Ensemble for Early Music directed by Frederick Renz , Daniel and the Lions is able to reveal today an incredible appeal to the audience, including children.

Perhaps the young audiences see the production as an alternate choice, certainly not less attractive, to the puppetry performances given by the Compagnia di Marionette Colla celebrating Verdi this year with Aida and Trovatore . Nevertheless, the plain narration of the prophet Daniel's story – who, after predicting the end of Belshazzar's kingdom and the beginning of the victor Darius's, falls victim to the envy of the new king's advisers and is put into the lions' den only to be saved by an angel – captures the audience just as much as it surely did when presented in churches throughout the Middle Ages.

The production is impeccable; the antique instruments awaken a picturesque image inside the Basilica of St. Euphemia, the performers' voices are extraordinary, the costumes are wonderful and the action is efficaciously moved by the clever direction.

An equally remarkable success [of the Festival] is obtained by other musical manifestations, for a few years part of the Festival's programming series "Music in Secret Umbria," which takes place throughout a number of towns not far from Spoleto where historically and artistically important churches are found. The occasion calls for a visit of the towns, the beautiful performance [twice featuring New York's Ensemble for Early Music] and a picnic based on local food products. A vivacious and effective idea, which could "migrate" to other Italian regions!" La Gazzetta del Mezzo Giorno, July 2001

"Daniel and the Lions — the other face of the Middle Ages - The colorful notes echo against the walls of St. Euphemia, a place that carries an intense scent from the Middle Ages. Religious rites take place indoors, as if suddenly detached from the surrounding world: the performance of 'Daniel and the Lions' becomes a sort of escape back in time with this well known sacred drama from the 12th century.

GRAND ATMOSPHERE - The production is enhanced with choreography rich in movement, pantomime, elaborate costumes - kings and saints, courtiers, arms bearers and veiled women walking along the sides of the audience before rejoining in the apse. New York's Ensemble for Early Music, directed by Frederick Renz, makes the tension believable, supporting the text in a bold and heart-felt way. The representation is revealed before everyone's eyes; the Middle Ages are, indeed, another time." Il Resto Del Carlino & Il Giorno, July 2001

"The Festival Scene — Spoleto, the liturgical drama returns with the biblical Daniel in the lions' den - It is definitely the variety of the play's structure and the melodic lines that create this unicum -- made even more precious by this clever production." Il Tempo, July 2001

Mass for the Millennium

The word event is not an exaggeration in describing this celebration...the six performers covered the walls of the church with their silky vocal veil.

From the first notes, the Ensemble let glide a sentiment of fulfillment. Carefully measuring their vocal input, the luminous and ethereal voices reveal the beauty of their timbres and the nobility of their style. Their singing is transparent, refined, clear; the musical rigor is undeniable...and letting themselves be carried away by feelings of spiritual abandon, giving as much importance to the inner meaning as to the form of their vocal discourse. Solidly produced, the voices form a single and unique instrument.

Balanced, flamboyant, this vocal ensemble serves the work with such care that the listeners perceive its intrinsic beauty very quickly. New York's Ensemble for Early Music received a standing ovation from the audience." La Montagne, (Limoges, France) May 23, 2000

"Watching the constant give-and-take between these skilled musicians, singing complex music with no outside direction, reminded me more of a string quartet or a first-class jazz combo than of an early music choir. The group uses a kaleidoscopic variety of solo voices, carefully chosen...all six voices moved as one...beautiful singing...flawlessly delivered." San Francisco Classical Voice, March 31, 2000

RENZ - directing Chanticleer in his production of The Resurrection Play of Tours

"SPLENDID RECREATION - As staged by Frederick Renz, this hour-long piece emerged as part pageant, part religious meditation...a supremely beautiful and affecting spectacle. The music is just as diverse, but all of it sounded rich and resplendent." San Francisco Chronicle, March 13, 2000

A Medieval Christmas (Ex cathedra Records)

"The programming is inventive....the opportunity to hear such diverse works side by side creates a new and intriguing context for each composition. The Ensemble's performances are similarly invigorating, giving fresh readings and careful consideration...thoughtfully rendered. The Ensemble imbues each work with a very appealing sweetness, and at times their performances turn even happily raucous -- a welcome reminder of some of the Ensemble's earlier recordings, including two volumes of Istanpitta....The result is an absorbing hour of listening and a very attractive alternative soundtrack for the holiday season." Early Music America, Winter 1999-2000

Sponsus - Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins

"Director Frederick Renz used the Lied Center's space to his advantage...The vocal performances by the six male and 10 female singers were disciplined and technically strong. But without doubt, the highlight of the show came when the fabric Hellmouth was unfurled and animal- and grisly faced demons emerged to torment and round up the Foolish Virgins...it makes for great theater." Lawrence (Kansas) World-Journal, February 14, 2000

"ANCIENT PARABLE COMES TO LIFE WITH FLOURISH, EXPRESSIVE COLOR - New York's Ensemble for Early Music offered a luminous example of historic reconstruction...haunting music...ritualistic aura. The play unfolded...soaring purely like a dream. The production was rich yet simple, colorful yet dignified...a glowing sense of line and poetic nuance. The instrumental contributions were delightful. Perhaps the Ensemble could be lured back..." Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 9, 1999.