Winter Harp's medieval merrymaking

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      Joaquin Ayala's new instrument will tell you most of what you need to know about Winter Harp, the Vancouver-based ensemble led by harpist Lori Pappa?john. Ayala, the group's keyboardist and player of the organistrum, nyckelharpa, and bass psaltery, has recently taken possession of a symphonia, custom-made for him by the renowned British luthier Neil Brook.

      Those familiar with medieval instruments will recognize that this ancestor of the hurdy-gurdy ­ ­ a cross between a bowed stringed instrument and a keyboard, with a droning, bagpipe-like sound has been updated somewhat, with an extra five keys for increased sonic flexibility. But sharp eyes will note an even greater anachronism: a digital tuner inset into the instrument's body a convenience Ayala's 13th-century forebears could never have imagined.

      "That's kind of the entire philosophy of Winter Harp," Ayala says with a laugh, reached by phone at his Vancouver home. "It looks medieval, but it really isn't. It's Pre-Raphaelite medieval, an idealized version of what the Middle Ages would have looked like."

      Ayala seems in a good mood, perhaps because he's just heard that all of Winter Harp's Lower Mainland concerts including one at St. Andrew's Wesley Church on Saturday (December 22)have sold out. Given that several of the venues hold 1,000 seats or more, it's a remarkable feat for a group specializing in early music. And it's been accomplished not so much by savvy marketing as by word of mouth.

      "People are making a habit of coming to our shows, kind of like a ritual," Ayala says. "They come one year and they tell their friends, and the next year they bring their family and it just explodes exponentially at that point. So it's become something that they do to kick-start the Christmas season. You know, there's all the commercialism and lists and duties and obligations that's part of Christmas, but that's not the whole thing. People want a more genuine experience, and that's why they come to our shows."

      These shows offer an unusual blend of visual splendour, instrumental virtuosity, and seasonal cheer. Clad in jewel-bright velvet gowns, harpists Pappajohn, Janelle Nadeau, and Sharlene Wallace join violinist Mark Ferris, percussionist Lauri Lyster, and Ayala to present a variety of winter-themed songs. But rather than parrot the usual "Jingle Bells" nonsense, they've sourced their material from medieval hymnals and the folk tradition.

      "We play early French, Spanish, and English carols that are not very well known at all," Ayala notes, adding that he couldn't ask for a better showcase for his collection of ancient and obscure music-making devices.

      "When I met this group it was fabulous, because it was an opportunity to play a whole range of early-music instruments," he says. "In general, medieval instruments don't have nearly the dynamic range and the precision that you can get with modern concert instruments. But they do have a certain rustic, mellow quality to them, and that's the sound that we were looking for to accompany the harps and violin and percussion. We wanted a sound that had a friendly, warm quality to it, and that's what we ended up with."