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Utopia Early Music 

A love of the medieval style

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Christopher LeCluyse (standing) and Al Cofrin (seated left) rehearse for Chevrefoil
  • Christopher LeCluyse (standing) and Al Cofrin (seated left) rehearse for Chevrefoil

It’s hard enough for some adults to imagine themselves enjoying a musical performance involving lutes, harps and recorders. So how does it happen that someone gets the bug for medieval music in middle school?

Christopher LeCluyse—tenor vocalist and co-founder of Salt Lake City’s Utopia Early Music ensemble—was a Catholic school student in Kansas City when a teacher started introducing students to music history, including a unit on the 14th-century poet and composer Guillaume de Machaut and a recorded performance of his Messe de Nostre Dame. “It really hit me kind of at a spiritual level,” recalls LeCluyse. “There’s a lot about this music that is on the one hand very human—it uses voices, and instruments that are wood and gut—and … transcendent.”

Since 2009, LeCluyse and Utopia have been attempting to bring that sense of transcendence to Utah audiences. LeCluyse connected with soprano Emily Nelson, recently relocated to Salt Lake City from Seattle in 2009, through a meeting in Texas between two of their respective colleagues; “The classical-music world is a small world, and the early-music world is a smaller world within that small world,” says LeCluyse. One e-mail from Nelson to LeCluyse and a meeting at the Beehive Tea Room later, they started putting together the idea for Utopia Early Music.

That “early-music” label is, LeCluyse acknowledges, not a complete picture of the group’s mission. “Typically, when people say ‘early music,’ they’re saying everything from the Middle Ages to 1750, through the Baroque period,” says LeCluyse. “But I often use it as shorthand for what might more properly be called ‘historically informed performance.’ Certainly, medieval, Renaissance and Baroque [music] are in our gearbox, but we’ve sung 19th-century hymns. So it’s more an approach to performing than a period; it’s based on the foundational principle that you perform music in a style, and on instruments, appropriate to the period.”

Just to be clear, that doesn’t necessarily mean folks in period costumes performing the way you might see at a Renaissance festival. “Certainly, there may be groups that do that—we don’t,” LeCluyse says with a laugh. “We let the text—the spoken text, the sung text and the story—create that imagery for people. We don’t find it necessary, any more than somebody playing a Mozart concerto would wear a powdered wig or knee breeches.”

This fall’s season opener—part of Westminster College’s new commitment to featuring early-music performances as part of its Concert Series—features Chevrefoil, a version of the Tristan and Isolde doomed-romance story from Arthurian legend by the 12th-century poet Marie de France. Utopia will be accompanied for this performance by Istanpitta, a Texas-based touring ensemble led by Al Cofrin, whose own passion for early music comes from the unique challenge of reconstructing the works from an era where very little was written down.

“The music that’s available is such a skeleton version of the way music is mostly available,” Cofrin says. “It’s an open playing field: ‘Here’s some pieces of the puzzle, now try to put that puzzle together.’

“There’s a bare-bones melody line, maybe … a few bars. To make that interesting, I’m not going to repeat that melody over and over again for four minutes. In the second pass, I’m going to give it a flavor—how can I play this in a sad way; how can I play this in a hopeful way. Try to turn emotion into notes.”

The result is a performance that is as much improvisational as it is an attempt at meticulous re-creation of the era’s music. “That’s what fun and exciting about it,” says LeCluyse. “If you’re lucky, you have a single melody line with words. That puts you in the situation of being a creator. It’s not just a quest for authenticity; this is living music.”

For the performance of Chevrefoil, original lines of Marie de France’s Norman French verse will be juxtaposed with English translations. The music played between the stanzas represents a sampling of early music “sort of interwoven with a storyline,” as LeCluyse describes it. And the sound of the music will not necessarily be instantly familiar even to those who know their Baroque and later classical music.

“[This music is] using scales that are really no longer prevalent in Western Europe,” says Cofrin. “It’s more akin to what you’d still hear in the Middle East and really pulls you back into that era very cleanly.”

But LeCluyre believes that for all its unfamiliarity, early music can still resonate on that gut level he experienced as a boy. “A lot of the songs we’re performing were by … the equivalents of the troubadours,” LeCluyse says. “Songs of longing and unrequited love and dedication and devotion—that started in the Middle Ages.

“I think we have this mistaken notion that people in the past were less intelligent and less passionate than we were. They were incredibly smart and, if anything, more passionate. The Middle Ages wears its heart on its sleeve.”

Vieve Gore Recital Hall
Westminster College
1700 S. 1200 East
Sept. 12
7:30 p.m.

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