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11.5.05

Rock Like It's 1599

In a program of "Seventeenth-Century Dutch Soundscape" titled "The World of Jacob van Eyck" at the National Gallery of Art's West Garden Court, compositions from over a dozen composers ranging roughly from 1560 to 1670 were showcased by the early musicke group The Baltimore Consort.

The concert, as so often the case at the NGA, was in conjunction with a current exhibition, Jan de Bray and the Classical Tradition. Listening to the members of the Consort tune their instruments was already more than just dipping one's toes into the promised soundscape. But as soon as the six musicians began to play, pure beauty arose from the wondrously cacophonic and (nowadays) exotic noises of lute strumming, recorder tuning, cittern plucking, and crumhorn adjusting. I wish the audience would have realized sooner that not every bit of a program with 23 parts ought to have been applauded, but even though the players consciously seemed to play right through their sets in the second half, they evidently enjoyed the warm reception. Admittedly, for the quality of the offerings, neither audience nor players could be blamed.

Soon into the concert I was struck by an awe-inspiring sense of how these six musicians are curators of an art; less historical preservationists but exponents of a time past, very much alive through their passionate, committed, and—above all—excellent playing! To single out any one of the Consort's players would be doing injustice to another. All played the instrument(s) with the most consummate skill. They are Mary Anne Ballard on treble, tenor, and bass viols and rebec; Mark Cudek on cittern, recorder, crumhorn, bass viol and percussion; Larry Lipkis on tenor and bass viols, recorders, and crumhorn; Ronn McFarlane on the lute; and Mindy Rosenfeld on several flutes, recorders, pipes, and the crumhorn. To these five multitalented instrumentalists came José Lemos, definitely one of the finer countertenors I have had the pleasure to hear. Very animated (and stage-aware), he has great volume and a pleasingly rich, masculine tone. As a surprising bonus, his voice and the ensemble were actually helped by the usually counterproductive acoustics of the venue. Whether it was the set of strategically placed sound panels behind them or the style of music, I do not know, but with an echo and reverb that never became intrusive, it all sounded glorious.

Some sets of music—for example, a selection of Elizabethan works that were likely heard in the Netherlands of Jacob van Eyck's time, or several recorder tunes preserved by the flute virtuoso van Eyck—were given informative, short explanations by the Baltimore Consort's members, who also introduced their instruments. If I randomly pick one of a complete concert full of highlights, Claudio Monterverdi's "Si dolce è il tormento" showed off Mr. Lemos, the players behind him, and the type of music in the best possible fashion. Other works similarly exposed the other players on their particular instruments.

From John Dowland to John Playford, Giulio Caccini, and several other old masters, the program proved how much fun, how irresistible a concert of early music can be, and not just to the initiated. Directly after some Tippett, it was the perfect concert to bring my musical universe back into harmony. Whoever missed this concert did so at their own peril.

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