The varied and timeless voices of Piffaro

Piffaro with some of the 50 instruments its members play. The group has a policy that all members need to know how to play most of the instruments in the band's collection.

Polyphonic music from the Renaissance has been compared to an Italian dinner table in which everybody is simultaneously talking - and intently listening.

So when Piffaro, the Philadelphia Renaissance band, embarked on a program of music from Germany, the instruments were unusually talkative in that thorough Germanic way, creating a program with satisfying density (even some of the "anonymous" pieces had good fugal writing) while also giving folksy slices of village life.

Titled "Pfeiffern!", the program reminded that the group doesn't need some wonderful Belgian vocal quartet such as Capilla Flamenca (a periodic guest) to be at its best. Divided into nine sections, the Saturday concert at the Trinity Center for Urban Life had particularly good representation of the super-serious Ludwig Senfl (1486-1542), plus lighter songs and dances, and occasional readings on subjects such as the art of ringing church bells.

One section was devoted to ceremonial music, some of which was in such an unusual time signature (five beats to a measure, often used in modern jazz) that you realized these public events must have been quite strange, at least in comparison with what we see in Hollywood epics. Excerpts from the 15th-century Glogauer Liederbuch, all anonymous, were full of animal descriptions (cats, rats, etc.) with little of the fanciful Disneyesque qualities of our own time. The creatures seemed far less alien and more like distant cousins than separate species. Life was perceived 500 years ago in ways we can barely imagine.

As for the sounds themselves, even the modest pub songs and dances had Piffaro producing blends from heterogenous combinations of instruments that one rarely, if ever, hears elsewhere. Just as entrancing was the consort playing, when instruments of the same family produced a massed and quite imposing sound.

In several ways, Piffaro seems newly energized, and not just because it has added a bass shawm to the 50-odd instruments onstage. The program included a 16-page booklet reproducing 16th-century woodcuts of the instruments being heard. The playing was more technically solid than ever, more dramatic in its sense of contrast and more thoughtful in its blends. Whoever thought a bagpipe trio could be mellifluous?

Because there's a group-wide policy that everybody knows how to play most of the instruments at hand, Piffaro was about to start one piece when a few players realized that they'd picked up the wrong hardware and had a quick, last-minute exchange. Not that it would have mattered that much.

Contact David Patrick Stearns at

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