Madrigals have a strong history at MHS

Madrigal dinners combine the fellowship of a meal, the pleasure of a musical performance, the appeal of some drama - all in a dinner theatre atmosphere that allows interaction between performers and the audience.

Throw in the colorful renaissance outfits, and who wouldn’t want to attend?
That’s pretty much what the Monticello High School madrigal singers have found in recent years. This year, the two dinner performances Dec. 7-8 were sold out just three hours after tickets went on sale Nov. 1. Tickets are still available for the 6:30 p.m. Dec. 6 dessert-only performance in the high school auditorium, and can be purchased by calling the high school office at 762-8511.

“It’s a hot ticket,” said Tricia Shaw, the Monticello school district choral music teacher for grades 5 through 12. She has trouble pegging why the demand has gotten so high for tickets in the last three years for an event that has gone on each December for nearly four decades.

It could be there are more students involved – four more singers were added to bring the total to 20, and an early music ensemble is also new in recent years.

Maybe it’s the chance of the unexpected that draws people.

“I’ve heard stories of things catching on fire,” said Shaw, who quickly qualifies the statement: “But thankfully not on my watch.”

Actually, Shaw said besides the high quality musicianship and drama, she just feels the local production is “just an experience for people.

“I always joke how people who come get lukewarm food and a nervous server (students serve dinner), but I think people find it charming. And people are so kind when a kid pours water in their wassail (spiced apple cider) cup.”

And while the idea of gathering for dinner and song does date back to the middle ages, the idea of a madrigal dinner is actually much more recent – and midwestern.

“In the 1600’s, madrigal music was not often performed in the concert settings that we now assume,” said Leonard Rumery, a former professor of music at the University of Illinois who leads the 10-person early music ensemble for the local madrigals.

“Instead it was household music. Instead of the T.V., you would set up madrigal books, and people would sit around after dinner and sing. It was a common pastime,” he added, noting that madrigal songs originally came from Italy in the 1600’s and spread quickly throughout Europe.

In the 1970’s, University of Illinois doctoral student John Haberlen took advantage of a renewed interest in the renaissance period and helped invent the madrigal dinner. He literally wrote the book on the subject - “Elizabethan Madrigal Dinners” in 1978 with Stephen Rosolack.

MHS singers perform not only 400-year madrigals, but other forms of music from the time period, and even throw in some modern music such as “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

Worth the work
Students try out for the local madrigal group in the spring for the following school year, and start rehearsing with an intense, four-day camp in August. Once the school year begins, practices are held every other morning at 7:15 a.m.

For students busy with other activities, it is quite a commitment, but well worth it according to tenor Josh Schumacher, a senior in his third year of madrigals.

“The final product is something you remember every year. It can be a drag throughout rehearsals, but when you get there it’s worth it every year,” said Schumacher.

“I just love making music, and it’s just so much fun to be around people who enjoy making music as much as I do,” added Elizabeth Nisly-Nagele,” a senior alto singing in the MHS madrigals for a second year.

Senior soprano Rachel Jones agrees.

“I just have such a passion for music. And the people you spend time with you just become such good friends with,” she said.

The students and their director all agree the group spends enough time together to function somewhat as a family – which can mean “those relationships can get tested,” said Nagele. “But it’s holding together well.”

Shaw added that the ‘family’ comes from all walks of life, making the group somewhat of a Renaissance version of the television show “Glee.”

“They come from every part of the school. There are athletes, there are thespians. Every group in the high school is represented in the madrigals,” said Shaw.

Challenges abound, but for most they don’t revolve around learning the music. Instead, the biggest worries come from things like organizing the seating for 230 guests a night.

Or simply learning how to get into a complicated renaissance costume.

“They can be obnoxious,” said Jones of her outfit. “This lacing thing takes me like 30 minutes to lace it up.

“But it wouldn’t be madrigals without the costumes,” she quickly adds.

‘Humbling’ for director
For Shaw, the event means helping coordinate the 40 student musicians and another 40 volunteers who help behind the scenes. But she said it’s all worth it to see them all work hard for a common goal.

“It’s humbling to me that students who are so driven and so talented and so kind – who could be doing anything with their time because they’re smart, talented kids – it’s humbling they want to devote that time to the madrigals. They see the value in it,” said Shaw.

 

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