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6.6.05

Early Music Festival: Baltimore Consort

Baltimore ConsortThe last time that the Baltimore Consort played in Washington, it was at the National Gallery of Art (read the Ionarts review, by Jens F. Laurson). For the third concert of the Washington Early Music Festival (continuing through June 26), I was back at the little church of St. Mary, Mother of God, in Chinatown, to hear the Baltimore Consort give a program called ¡Cancionero!: Romances, villancicos, and improvisations of Spain, circa 1500. As it turns out, it was the last concert of the group's 25th anniversary season, which meant a lot to the musicians.

Jens raved about the sound of the countertenor, José Lemos, who sang with the group at the National Gallery last month, so I was sure not to miss this chance to hear him sing. (He is a fairly new member of the group: as Mark Cudek put it during his concert narration, he was born around the time that the Baltimore Consort was founded 25 years ago.) He has done some opera, including a production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, at Tanglewood, with Anne-Carolyn Bird (who blogs at The Concert) last summer (their photograph was in the New York Times). His voice carried quite well in that resonant space, with purity that was compromised sometimes, intentionally, for dramatic purposes. It was fun to watch him walk around in front of the instrumentalists, as if the altar space were a stage.

The program focused on the cultural crossroads of Spain, with music related to Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. Several Sephardic songs were adapted from versions transcribed only very recently, long after the Jews were officially expelled from Spain. This is not to say that the performance of these works was not beautiful, or the music not interesting, only that I'm not sure how reliably we can consider this to be truly representative of the Renaissance. It was interesting how the Sephardic love songs selected here drew inspiration from the poetry of the Song of Songs, paraphrasing it like Morena me llaman (They call me the dark one) or even quoting it in Latin (which is itself odd) like Yo me soy la morenica (I am the little dark girl), which includes the line Nigra sum sed formosa (I am black but lovely).

That we have made it through three of the festival's concerts on Spanish early music and heard Riú Riú Chiú only once is, thankfully, a relief. Although the Baltimore Consort is the only one to have sung that piece, they did give performances of two pieces played by Hesperus on Friday night. I preferred Rosa Lamoreaux's rollicking rendition of Juan del Encina's Oy camamos y bebamos, but Lemos and this group had the upper hand in the same composer's Cucú, cucú, cucucú, largely because of the soft, luscious flute playing of Mindy Rosenfeld. She was the group's original flutist and has now returned to playing with them, with her woody, mellifluous tone.

The most striking part of the program were the Christian songs of triumph, mocking the defeat of the Muslims in Grenada. The tone of religious hatred was somewhat unsettling, not unlike what I felt with the Hesperus program on Friday night (in that case, the relationship between Spanish and those they subjugated). In Juan del Encina's romance ¿Qu'es de ti, desconsolado?, the singer asks, "What has become of you, King of Granada? What has become of your land and of your Moors?" This performance was like a dirge, quite lovely, with the three viols in a lament-like stasis. In the same composer's villancico Levanta, Pascual, levanta, the fast tempo underscores the hasty decision of two friends to go to Granada because "the word is that it has fallen." A third piece by del Encina, the romance Una sañosa porfía, is written in the voice of a defeated Moorish ruler ("Fortune has already ordained that I should be deprived of my prosperous rule . . . A noble Virgin gives them strength"). As Mark Cudek put it, these pieces feature "language that would probably be considered politically correct today only in Crawford, Texas."

The instrumentalists all made beautiful sounds and were featured on some solely instrumental works, like the exceptional Recercada primera y segunda by Diego Ortiz, which is a pair of variation sets over bass patterns. (The second one's harmonic pattern reminded me a whole lot of a piece for keyboard by William Byrd. I have to check on that.) The krumhorns featured on this concert were quite harsh in tone, and I did prefer the warmer sound of the shawms used by Piffaro on Saturday night. Ronn McFarlane had some delicate and gorgeous moments on the lute, one of my favorite instruments. An encore of a Galician folk song was a welcome chance to appreciate the group's many talents once again.

The schedule of the Washington Early Music Festival includes three concerts next weekend: Camerata Trajectina on Friday (June 10 at 7:30 pm) with a program of sea shanties; the Palestrina Choir's Victoria program on Saturday (June 11 at 7:30 pm); and Modern Musick's Boccherini program on Sunday (June 12 and 3 pm).

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