Renaissance riot on Cellblock 9

Posted: May 20, 2014

Acoustics are snappy. Atmosphere is enveloping. So why don't we hear more concerts at Eastern State Penitentiary?

That gothic Fairmount Avenue fortress hosts any number of arts-related activities these days, and it turned out to be a perfectly sympathetic venue on Friday for Piffaro, the Renaissance Band, in a program appropriately titled "Prisoners & Penitents."

Gleefully perverse humor was prevalent in a series of ballads, mostly British (John Dowland, Peter Philips, Thomas Weelkes) and from the 16th and 17th centuries, with the usual group of Piffaro instrumentalists (shawms, recorders, bagpipes on a bedrock of lute and harp) augmented by a woman of many voices, Maren Montalbano.

The concert began in one of the long, narrow cell blocks, with its eerie, vaulted ceilings, progressing to a rotunda where chairs were set up and individual players often appeared in alcoves with almost ghostly abruptness. Best of all, the not-so-roomy rotunda put listeners in close proximity to Piffaro's solid, highly communicative playing.

The program - also presented over the weekend at more typical haunts in Chestnut Hill and Wilmington - didn't depend on its own novelty. "Fortune My Foe," an Elizabethan-era melody of obscure authorship, set the right tone, its serpentine, modal quality penetrating deep into the dark heart of the human psyche.

The tone was effectively set for Robert Johnson's "Queen Anne Boleyn's Lament" and later for a confession by a man whose life of robbery was a means to keep his girlfriend in style. Quaint but stern warnings reminded us that purse-snatching doesn't pay.

Even more than usual, Piffaro tastefully clothed the music in varied arrangements that tapped the group's versatility with a wide range of wind instruments, most notably an inviting recorder consort. Songs were accompanied with particular sensitivity by Christa Patton.

Often heard with the Crossing choir, Montalbano adapted an unfancy vocal style for most of the music, with little vibrato or clever phrase reading.

One song had a cockney accent. More full-bodied tone was saved for self-righteous moralizing. Many-stanza ballads maintained their narrative sense. And Montalbano's duets with the articulate but more vernacular voice of regular Piffaro member Grant Herreid felt just right.

The relief one felt upon leaving the penitentiary had nothing to do with the music-making. Obviously.

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