Piffaro’s annual Christmas concert

A Renaissance-American Holiday Fete

The first half of Piffaro’s annual Christmas program included an anonymous 16th-century French noel, Une Jeune Pucelle, that presents one of the most touching versions of the Annunciation I’ve encountered. The French words and the simple musical setting create a quiet, unadorned picture of a young woman “of noble heart” who hears the angel Gabriel announce that she has been chosen for a special destiny. She takes comfort from the angel’s promises and accepts her fate with gentle gratitude.

Rogier van der Weyden’s Annuciation, c. 1434

Piffaro arranged Une Jeune Pucelle for soprano, lute, and recorder — a combination that complemented a picture based on the young country women who would have graced the world of the anonymous composer.

Piffaro’s Christmas concert contained elements of the three traditions that shape our American mashup of Christian holy day, pagan winter solstice, and purely secular end-of-the-year bash. The French Noel section that opened this year’s edition portrayed the Christian birth story through eyes influenced by French country life. The English section at the end focused on the pagan and secular aspects with dances, a song about the pre-Christian symbolism of the holly tree, and a final salute to the arrival of the new year. This year, Piffaro even managed to include Hanukkah, despite the fact that the calendar had paired it with Thanksgiving. Four Sephardic Hanukkah songs added a Catalan flavor to the mix. (And the American holiday season does, after all, begin with the Black Friday shopping frenzy.)

Piffaro’s traditional Christmas guest, soprano Laura Heimes, was in particularly good voice and once again demonstrated her ability to capture the moods of a wide range of songs. Much as we all appreciate a good soprano, the other headlined guest, Kiri Tollaksen, contributed something extra special. Tollaksen is a trumpeter who has mastered the cornetto — a melodious wooden trumpet with holes along the top like a recorder or a flute. It’s one of the most beautiful instruments the human race has ever devised. It was a popular solo instrument in its day but faded as the violin ascended to its present prominence. In spite of its appeal, the unique sound of the cornetto is still one of the rarer pleasures encountered at period instrument concerts. At this concert it was primarily used as an ensemble instrument. It created a thin, bright line that completely changed the sound of every ensemble that included Tollaksen.

Gwyn Roberts, the co-director of Tempesta di Mare, filled in for recorder player Priscilla Herreid, who’s currently working on Broadway in the onstage period instrument ensemble that accompanies the Old Globe Theater’s ultra-historical Shakespeare productions. In addition to her ensemble work, Roberts contributed two well-placed solos on the high, sweet sopranino recorder. I tend to associate Tom Zajac with the more raucous instruments in Piffaro’s arsenal, such as the one-man wind-and-percussion duo called the pipe and tabor. The Sephardic interlude highlighted another aspect of his musical personality with a haunting solo on the wooden Renaissance flute.

A successful concert — like a good symphony — requires an overall vision that binds the individual elements into a satisfying event. Piffaro’s concerts work because of the showmanship and scholarship its musicians bring to their work under the leadership of its directors, Joan Kimball and Robert Wiemken. The showmanship is a visible onstage element composed of a good feel for pacing and changes in instrumentation. The scholarship is less visible, but you get some sense of it when you note that most of the program consists of pieces you’ve never heard before. Concerts like this have become part of our musical life because of the offstage efforts of musicians who explore mammoth libraries and make the choices that create a coherent, moving concert.

If once a year is not enough

Piffaro has issued a holiday CD that bears the same title as this concert, Drive the Cold Winter Away, which has 22 pieces recorded live at previous Christmas concerts. Two of them were among the 34 pieces played on this year’s program, including the title song. The other 32 pieces were all new entries in Piffaro’s holiday repertoire, as far as I could tell.