The St. Martin Tour: Worth the Trip

Samuel Black describes a Rose Ensemble concert of medieval music.

The lights are still on in Duluth. Sometimes that means the northern lights, but tonight it was the reputed golden halo around the head of Martin, from the French city of Tours. St. Martin, as he is often known, lived and died during the fourth century, and nine hundred years later he was one of the most visited of all the Blessed in Christendom. Add another seven hundred years, and we find The Rose Ensemble bringing the lights of St. Martin to the East hillside of Duluth, Minnesota, USA, Terra, Solar System, Milky Way, Universe.

Jordan Sramek, a Duluth youngster, though more musically at home in the Twin Cities, came to visit his family, and he brought The Rose Ensemble with him. What a deal! At the University of Minnesota-Duluth, an esoteric group of 120 individuals came out in the rain to take a musical/spiritual trip back to the thirteenth century. This date was followed by concerts in St. Paul and Minneapolis. Not bad press for a man dead these past 1700 years.

This tour focused on St. Martin of Tours is worth whatever mileage it requires to be in the house. It isn’t very often that one can visit the world of Christian pilgrims in central France. Sramek and a musicological friend, Yossi Maurey, have spent the past four years putting together this program of words and music celebrating the life and miracles associated with St. Martin, who spent most of his life around the French city of Tours. To add to the fascination, Maurey is a very Jewish young man from Israel who became addicted to music of the Middle Ages as a university student. An amazing breadth of religious and musical experience is combined in one ethereal evening.

The pre-concert discussion was great. Maurey’s background is most colorful, and full of anecdotes covering a vast number of centuries. He was well able to answer the variety of questions he was thrown.

As for the music: The Rose Ensemble is simply quintessential. With a special inclusion of Eric Mentzel, a tenor teaching in Oregon who travels the world sharing his passion for medieval music, these thirteen musicians will remove all present anxieties and replace them with a certain peace only available in music.

By the thirteenth century, the cult connected with St. Martin was enormous. Most of the music performed came from a particular manuscript preserved at the cathedral in Tours. Without question, this music is not from our time: All time stops while the singing is in motion. From the lofty bliss provided by Kathy Lee, to the darkness of the shadows intoned by Mark Dietrich, an enormous range of emotions explodes. While much of this energy is the single line of ecclesiastical chanting, from time to time the group improvises parallel harmonies. When some of this music was originally performed at 3:00am, even the sleepiest of the monks must have felt energized.

In the middle of all this antiquity comes the twenty-five-year-old wisdom of Eric William Barnum. In a dazzling choral setting of words beginning ‘Hic est Martinus,’ (This is Martin) harmonies of the 21st century come face to face with language and emotions of either the fourth or the thirteenth. Either way, the contrast is magnificent! This one piece is worth the admission.

How often is it possible to move several centuries away from where we live? Sometimes the experience of sitting and listening is enough. Understanding is irrelevant, because the ambience will inundate anything else in the holy space.

As usual, the musical effect of The Rose Ensemble is transformational. As the thirteenth century envelops the evening, modern concerns regain a certain perspective. Even sharing music from the sixteenth century, as well as the twenty-first, does not diminish the aura.