Always an antidote to high-concept overload with boisterous instruments created to be heard in public events of centuries past, Piffaro the Renaissance Band embarked on the grandest project of its 31-year history in this weekend's Musical World of Don Quixote concerts but never lost its arresting directness.
The Saturday and Sunday concerts at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral were full of theatrical bonuses including choreography, lighting, and the ever-engaging narrative of Miguel de Cervantes' great novel. Piffaro wore its high budget (courtesy of the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage) like a loose garment - and with a fundamental difference. Though Piffaro resurrects mission-lost music and marginalized instruments by placing them in foreground circumstances, the group primarily served the Cervantes narrative by dramatizing events from the book.
No windmills. And I didn't miss them. Quixote's rich inner world and hapless external circumstances were contrastingly characterized with a mosaic-like combination of Cervantes quotations projected in subtitles, brief dialogue interludes, and, of course, a range of music including guitar-accompanied songs, peasant dances, a mysterious Moorish interlude, and sublime polyphonic vocal music by great 17th-century Spanish composers. Such music doesn't dramatize words in the modern sense, but goes to the heart of matters when contextualized intelligently.
This idea has been tried before - extremely successfully by the Spanish early-music group Hesperion XXI, led by Jordi Savall. While that project had choices dictated by the group's strengths, Piffaro's Grant Herreid curated the Philadelphia concerts with a wider palette of expression all assembled seamlessly and ingeniously. After all, Piffaro has bagpipes and was augmented by soprano Nell Snaidas and the four-voice, all-male New York Polyphony. Performances were wonderfully authoritative.
On the theatrical front, Piffaro has done worse. Though Leland Kimball's stage direction contributed solid pacing, dialogue had to be delivered in broad strokes because of the church acoustics. Though Christopher Williams was an ideal choreographic choice (he often draws on legends of antiquity), the stylized sword fighting was too much to ask for non-dancers to put across.
But as the second half closed in on Don Quixote's death, New York Polyphony baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert sang an anonymous romance with elegant mastery. Then the quartet joined Snaidas in Guerrero's "En tanto que de rosa y azucena" that gave the evening a depth of emotion equal to any of the many Don Quixote dramatizations that I've encountered.