Battle of the Bands: Piffaro and Orchestra 2001 2/22/2013

The moment I heard about the concept of this concert I was intrigued.  Billed as “The Winds of Yore…and Now!”, the program squared off Piffaro, the Renaissance Band with Orchestra 2001, which specializes in contemporary classical music.  25 years ago, when Orchestra 2001 was founded, 2001 must have seemed a long way off, but they have survived and thrived far past their futuristic name.  Piffaro has been around even longer.  Though they have been known to tour internationally, Philadelphia is lucky to have the special talent of this ensemble as their home base since 1980.

A pre-concert talk introduced the audience to this unique concert. Standing along with the artistic directors of Piffaro and Orchestra 2001 were two composers.  The program included jazzed up transcriptions of three 16th century works by Arne Running and a new commission written specifically for this concert, “Redtail and Hummingbird” by Kile Smith.  The concert was broken up into different sections that provided a myriad of various combinations of instruments, musical periods, and styles.   One challenge to the evening was that Renaissance and modern instruments are not normally tuned to the same pitch, so microtonal variations played together for any significant stretch of time could have audience members running for the exits.  Thankfully a compromise was made and the instruments were tuned to the same pitch, with one exception that I’ll describe later.

The battle started, appropriately with Banchieri’s “La Battaglia”.  Ten Orchestra 2001 members faced each other and an ensemble of four members of Piffaro, armed with shawms, dulcians, and sackbuts faced the audience between the Orchestra 2001 ranks.  Seriously outnumbered, the Piffaro ensemble nevertheless cut through the modern instruments with their loud and raspy shawms.  Following the original 16 century music played by old and new instruments were jazzed up interpretations of 16th century music by Arne Running.  The three works played by Orchestra 2001 sometimes layered modern dissonance over original melodies, and at other times broke free of the early music formalities with jubilant riffs that could have emerged from a New Orleans jazz club.  Though a bit corny at times, I love the humor of P.D.Q Bach (a.k.a. Peter Schickele) so I was pleased to see three short pieces included in the program.  His “Echo Sonata for Two Unfriendly Groups of Instruments” was especially fitting with the ongoing battle of the bands theme of the evening.

Kile Smith’s “Redtail and Hummingbird” followed in the first of two performances.  Piffaro played first and Orchestra 2001 repeated the performance following an intermission.  I had read Smith’s wonderful blog series that described the inspiration and creative process for his work.  This greatly enhanced my experience in hearing it for the first time, and provided me with visual images to match the music.  The first thing that struck me was a new appreciation for the talent of the Piffaro musicians.  Of course, when Smith composed the work he needed to make sure it was playable by Renaissance instruments, but they are notoriously tricky and temperamental, so I never expected such a rock solid performance.  Orchestra 2001’s modern instruments provided a more refined version of the piece that helped me to appreciate not only the beautiful tones of the modern instruments but their fine dynamic control as well.  The musicians enhanced portions of Smith’s work through crescendos in tight formations that were not apparent with the ancient instruments.  Truth be told, however, I preferred the ancient instruments.  Their more rustic construction made for an edgier sound, and since I’m not as familiar with their sonority, the new piece sounded even newer with old instruments.  Go figure.

Music next emerged from the rear of the church as Piffaro surprised us by setting up in the choir loft.  They performed old and new music again with another work by Kile Smith from VESPERS.  After one of the many required chair and music stand shuffling sessions, the dueling bands returned to the front to perform “Delizie contente che l’alme beate” several times.  This sequence provided a historical timeline that started with the original 17th century work performed on period instruments and ended in a very different world of modern instruments; including tape electronics.  The tape sounds were introduced so subtly that it first sounded like there were actually more musicians on stage.  The sounds then diverged and broke apart until just haunting fragments of the original melody would appear – as if the score had been written on a pane of glass that had shattered.

The final section of the concert brought us back to the battle of the bands in a suite of dances from Tylman Susato’s “Danserye” (1551).   The suite started with shawms which were joined one after another, including bagpipe and percussion, by Piffaro musicians.  Orchestra 2001 jumped in next 1/2 pitch lower to create a great clashing of sound.  This was the tuning issue that the groups wisely waited until the end to display.  As the cacophony continued and tension increased the tones slowly merged as the Orchestra 2001 musicians raised their pitch to come into harmony with their rival band.  The joyous collaboration came to an end with a traditional “good game” hand shake lineup between teams.

This concert had it all.  Great music, interesting contrasts, skilled performances, new music, humor, and a thoughtful presentation that both enjoyable and intellectually stimulating.  Hopefully the creative collaborations will continue for future seasons.

Disclaimer: This article is an observation from the viewpoint of a “regular member” of the audience, not a critical review.