What the Critics Have To Say: Reviews of the Rose Ensemble

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Ames Life & Times
Originally Published Thursday, October 4
By Kathy Hanson, Contributing Writer
The Ames Town & Gown Chamber Music Association opened its 58th season with a program that accomplished what enduring art exists to do: stir convictions, ignite passion and evoke emotions uniting our hearts and minds and bodies.
The Rose Ensemble, noted by the St. Paul Pioneer Press as the “Twin Cities’ most daring and imaginative vocal ensemble,” presented its Cantigas from the Land of Three Faiths, on Sept. 29.
Artists’ Rendering of Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones
This program wasn’t a performance. It was more like a resurrection.  The Rose Ensemble breathes life into stark, ancient manuscripts —and not unlike the ancient Jewish account of Ezekiel in the Valley of the Dry Bones—restores them as new creations.  

Cantigas from the Land of Three Faiths is a poignant repository of music and lyric poetry surviving a medieval age when Jews, Christians and Muslims co-existed in Spain, Portugal and Italy.

Centuries of devotion and common life inspired spiritual songs, liturgical works and heroic tales of legends and miracles commensurate with the brutal reality of that era—sometimes all that held life together was a slender thread of faith.
Due to the scourge of interfaith fighting, much of the art and culture spanning the 13th through 16th centuries has been lost and forgotten.  But it shouldn’t be.  It embodied the imagination of people both common and notable who shaped our world, and whose most enduring legacy is their faithfulness.
Mosque of Córdoba, Spain
The Rose Ensemble has taken songs and poems born in households, chapels, cathedrals, synagogues, mosques and royal courts and reproduced the music with harmonies and rhythms and authentic instrumentation.
The 12-member ensemble shines with the individual personalities without any one dominating.  Always agile, at times reverent, bawdy, tragic or comic, the singers interpret and improvise each piece, constantly remaining aware of each other.
Artistic director and founder Jordan Sramek said, “It’s the improvisation that imparts life to each performance. We’re bringing the ancient into the modern—never in a rigid, formal formula—it always finds new life in the present.”
Each voice, from the bell-like clarity of soprano Heather Cogswell to the profound bass of Mark Dietrich, adds a subtle ingredient that blends into the whole without any single voice losing its flavor.
Movement, making the best use of the stage space, contributes a dimensional quality to the program, while a variety of instrumental interludes, recitations and narrated comments add dynamics to the performance.
The skill with which the performers play ancient instruments—from the strange hurdy-gurdy and cow bones to the evocative ud’—is nothing short of mesmerizing.
And through it all, the backdrop of history—from the extreme veneration of the Virgin Mary sustaining life in the middle ages, to the poignant story of Italian Renaissance Jew Salamone Rossi, and the expulsion of Jews from Spain, to the forced conversion Muslims to Christianity, to the glorious heterodoxy of the Sufi brotherhood—provides a framework for understanding the haunting music.
Town & Gown’s mission to “enrich the quality of life in central Iowa by presenting world-famous musical ensembles, as well as brilliant emerging artists, in intimate concert settings” and its “commitment to share our artists’ enthusiasm for chamber music with people of all ages and needs through educational outreach activities,” is not frivolous, and not just for the learned and affluent.  It is essential for all of us.
No matter what spiritual beliefs we hold, a slender thread of faith holds together the fabric of our lives.  Music can strengthen that thread and make it shine, stitching us together in a bright mosaic.
Programs like “Cantigas from the Land of Three Faiths” remind us of how much is at stake.

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