Piffaro presents music for Twelfth Night

Piffaro offers a different kind of masque for Twelfth Night

Tired of wearing a mask? How about a masque? Piffaro, the Renaissance Wind Band, will celebrate Twelfth Night with a digital concert featuring music for 17th Century English Masques.  The concert will livestream January 5, complete with masked musicians, and it will remain available for one week. Digital tickets ($15) and subscriptions ($45) are available online at Piffaro.org or by calling 215-235-8469.

Watch preview: https://youtu.be/KXnyQdAYrcI

English court masques featured masked performers dancing and singing to the playing of the court musicians and were popular during Christmastide – especially on Twelfth Night. They consist of a comic “antimasque,” performed by professional actors and dancers, and a stately main masque, danced by the courtiers themselves. Piffaro’s musicians have some fun with the antimasque dances in its program, wearing masks to evoke dancing birds, bears, goats, baboons and witches, as in the original masques (one actually featured real dancing bears, but that was outside our modern-day budget). A candle dance will evoke the torchbearer processions of the 17th century masques. The end result is a Twelfth Night program that is an unusual offering on the holiday concert calendar, full of mystery and beauty.

The road that brought Piffaro to this concert was typical of the challenges faced by performing arts organizations in the pandemic. Piffaro’s artistic directors, Joan Kimball and Bob Wiemken, had their eyes on a church in rural Pennsylvania, possessed of an unusual antique organ tuned close to renaissance pitch, for their traditional December renaissance Christmas program. After months of indecision, however, the church elders elected to remain closed. Attempt after attempt to find a venue with a suitable organ failed, and time was growing short.

Flash back to summertime Zoom happy hours with Piffaro’s musicians and the most burning topic of conversation in the performing arts world: what kind of programming could be offered to audiences online? Grant Herreid, Piffaro’s longtime plucked string specialist – imagination loosened by a few summer cocktails – had a whimsical suggestion: “We Piffaro musicians could wear funny masks through which we could try to play music, or we could play with masks on our instruments, just try to have some fun with the whole mask situation.”

Kimball & Wiemken decided that this could be the basis of a plausible program, and Piffaro sprang into action. Much of the English masque repertoire survives in manuscript, but often in reduced two-voice versions, so Herreid got to work arranging the dances into richer 4, 5, and 6-voice arrangements as well as choreographing the candle dance; Wiemken collated and refined instrumental scores to feature the full array of Piffaro’s collection of shawms, dulcians, recorders, bagpipes, krumhorns, and especially the band’s bass instruments: octave bass dulcian, contrabass recorder and bass sackbut; and Kimball hunted down masks and candles online while coordinating with production personnel. The program would need to be recorded indoors, and COVID infections were increasing. Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral offered its 4,200 square foot sanctuary and Priscilla Herreid drew up carefully detailed rehearsal and recording schedules that adhered to the most recent safety protocols. Announcements were sent to patrons that the concert was rescheduled from December 18 to January 5 to allow time for recording and editing, and Piffaro’s holiday program was saved.

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