Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Ojai Madrigali

Finding the Holiday Spirit with Voices from Christmas Past

Img48.pngI remember my first holiday season in Ojai, thinking that because the nearest mall is more than 25 miles away, I’d need to do all of my Christmas shopping “in town” or on the internet.  On a lark, and mostly because I had an unfinished shopping list and time was not on my side, I ventured into Ojai’s village center.  I was struck by all of the festive decorations, the sophisticated shops, the slight chill in the air, the dusting of snow on the Topa Topa’s and the sound of Christmas filling the air.

I strolled down the arcade to find where the sound was coming from.  There were no instruments, just lovely voices singing ancient verses that reminded me of Dickens.  I don’t know why, because who knows what sort of soundtrack would accompany Dickens, but if it did, it would sound like this.  Warm and lilting and charming and lovely.  And from another time.  It felt nostalgic.

I found my way to a breezeway off the arcade where a small crowd had gathered into a circle.  In the center was a group of carolers in full renaissance regalia, trumpeting a cappella.  The breezeway offered the perfect acoustics for their harmony.  The costumes were fancy; ladies in full-length velvet and cinched corsets and gentlemen in knickers and fancy feathered hats.  They were animated and jolly and having as much fun as their enchanted audience. 

Soon we were on the move, making our way down the arcade, stopping every now and then.  Along the way I picked up a set of painted coasters at Kindred Spirit, a soft scarf with matching gloves at Rains and scented monogrammed soaps at Kava Gifts.  With my Christmas gift list almost complete, the last stop took us to Rainbow Bridge for a hot cup of soup and more carols; a perfect end to a relaxing and entertaining afternoon of Christmas shopping free from the hectic pace and frantic crowds of the mall.

The Madrigali Renaissance Voices have been entertaining Ojaians and visitors alike since 1989.  Jaye Hersh came to Ojai from Lubbock Texas and founded the group when she became involved with the Ojai Shakespeare Festival her first summer here.  Originally meant to entertain the audience during festival intermissions, the group quickly gained in popularity and was soon getting gigs left and right.  And then people started calling them to sing holiday carols.

“We only sing music written before 1650,” says Hersh, who was a music major in college.  Through her work with the Shakespeare Festival, she recalls, “
I ended up over the years becoming a de facto specialist in Shakespeare music.”

Much of Madrigali’s music is based on song texts from Shakespeare’s plays.  “We have no idea what it actually sounded like,” says Hersh, explaining that all notated music of that era was written exclusively for the church.  Secular music that was created for pure entertainment typically deviated from the church’s music and was therefore considered sacrilegious.  Because it wasn’t notated, this music was essentially lost during the Baroque period and buried for about 300 years until choir directors in the twenties and thirties brought it back, then in the sixties it developed a following.

Hersh wanted to bring the music to life, so she sat with a colleague at a piano to come up with melodies to accompany Shakespeare’s song texts.  Now they have over 100 songs in their repertoire, all sung in the madrigal style – a term for polyphonic vocal music.

“Madrigal music is incredibly satisfying to the singers,” because, Hersh explains, the music was created in the “spirit of discovery and play, without expectation or requirement.”

After 17 years, Madrigali is 13 members strong and all are local residents living throughout Ventura county.  They have traveled as far as Barcelona, Spain and Sienna, Italy to perform as a group.  In the beginning, their costumes were mostly borrowed and haphazardly put together.  Hersh remembers thinking, “We need to get a look going on!”  Now most of their costumes are handmade with strict adherence to complying with the renaissance period.

During the holiday season, Madrigali typically performs on a for-hire basis for private audiences, but often they will end up in the arcade after a show to entertain passers-by.  This year they are performing at the Ojai Valley Inn on Christmas Eve for guests and restaurant patrons.

For more information or to hire Madrigali, contact Jaye Hersh at 640-MUSE.

Published Winter 2006 in the Ojai Valley Visitors Guide.