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10.12.10

Harmonious Blacksmith's Almost Christmas

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Sentirete una canzonetta
Harmonious Blacksmith
The early music ensemble Harmonious Blacksmith, last reviewed in 2009, was tapped by Dumbarton Oaks to close out the 2010 part of its season of subscription concerts with a concert of Christmas music. The program they chose consisted of French noëls, English carols, and villancicos from the New World, all resulting from attempts to combine Christian devotion with models of popular song and dance. That unification of style made for lots of jocund rhythms and texts reflective of simple piety (two Peruvian cachuas, from the Trujillo Manuscript, were particularly basic), but it also made the ear and mind long for something more substantial than so many repetitions of strophic forms and catchy refrains.

The performances were all enjoyable, led by the graceful soprano of Linda Tsatsanis, clear-toned but not straightened to the point of colorlessness. The voice was rarefied enough to match nicely with only the lute as accompaniment -- for example, in the 16th-century French song Une jeune fillette -- yet solid enough to rise over the full ensemble of gamba (Emily Walhout), harpsichord (the unshakable Joseph Gascho), recorder (Justin Godoy), violin (Scott Metcalfe, heard recently with his Blue Heron ensemble), and lute (or guitar or theorbo, all played by William Simms). Just when you thought you had heard everything in the remarkable Tom Zajac's bag of multi-instrumental tricks -- percussion and the marvelous sound of the medieval bagpipe, as well as recorders, all heard again here -- he does something like play the castanets, as he did in some of the Spanish selections. Some of the music had little to nothing to do with Christmas: the aforementioned Une jeune fillette, for example, which is not about the Virgin Mary but about a young girl dying on the vine after being forced into a convent by her family (it does not exactly put one in the Christmas spirit); much of the instrumental dance selections, like those from the Mulliner Book; and the anonymous Maria, todo es Maria, which was probably intended for Immaculate Conception).

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