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Rock Creek Festival: Armonia Nova Baroque

Having spent a lot of time in Little Rome, as the area around Catholic University was once called, I was shocked to realize that I had never actually gone into Rock Creek Cemetery, which is just across North Capitol Street into Northwest. If for no other reason, I thought the Adams Memorial by Augustus St. Gaudens would have drawn me there by now. Well, Monday night (June 13) I made my way there, to go to the newly renovated St. Paul's Episcopal Church, or Rock Creek Parish, founded in 1712. The parish is hosting its third annual Rock Creek Festival all this week, with concerts and other musical and artistic activities. It's a beautiful place to hear a concert, small and intimate, and the surroundings are idyllic.

Members of Armonia Nova Baroque performed a program of 16th- and 17th-century Spanish music called Con Ecos de Esplendor. (Most of the participants will also be featured later this month in the Washington Early Music Festival.) The singer was mezzo-soprano Barbara Hollinshead, who has impressed me before at other concerts (Washington Bach Consort and Opera Lafayette) with her pure and velvety voice. One of the tropes this summer—and a nice rediscovery for me—has been the music of Juan del Encina (see my reviews of the Baltimore Consort and Hesperus). Hollinshead, a professor of voice at American University as well as a busy performer, sang two of his pieces from the Cancionero de Palacio, which framed the concert as first and last piece. Her voice seemed best suited to the three Sephardic songs she sang with superlative lutenist Howard Bass, who announced quite rightly that these transcriptions may not have all that much to do with 15th-century Spain (a point I made in my review of the Baltimore Consort). However, the texts in Ladino and the folksy subjects give a certain flavor, however removed, of Sephardic culture in Spain. Yo m'enamori d'un air was particularly fine, with Hollinshead's evocative handling of the sighing melismas ("Tra la la").

Harpsichord by William Dowd, after a 1730s instrument by François Etienne BlanchetHoward Bass's skilled work on an instrument that I love, the lute, was so fragile and lovely. It was a treat to hear him play alone, on one of the Sephardic songs (Paxarico tu te llamas/Morikos, mos morikos), which he arranged himself, and especially the Cancion del Emperador, Luys de Narvaez's intabulation of a piece by Josquin des Pres, the greatest composer of the Renaissance. The highlight of the concert for me was Hollinshead's performance of Sebastián Durón's Cantada a voz sola al Santisimo y de Pasion, an interesting Spanish appropriation of that very Baroque genre, the solo cantata. In this work, two recitados frame an aria, all of which are an impassioned plea by the Soul for God's mercy. Here, Hollinshead seemed most confident and relaxed, and her excellent musical sense—she is an example of that exquisite and somewhat rare thing, an intelligent singer—drew our attention to the important lines of this moving text. Readers in the Washington area will shortly have a chance to hear the duo of Howard Bass and Barbara Hollinshead together on a special concert a week from this Saturday (June 25 at 4 pm), a program called Triste España featuring music of Renaissance Spain and the Sephardic Jews, part of the Washington Early Music Festival at St. Mark's Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill, which I highly recommend.

Harpsichordist Atsuko Ikeda played well, if somewhat timidly, on her solo piece, the Gallardas de primero tono de todo gusto by Juan Cabanilles (1644–1712), with its sections of increasing difficulty (the source, I assume, of "all pleasure" seen in the title). The instrument she played is the same I have seen around town this year (most recently, a concert by Penelope Crawford at the National Gallery of Art, where I took the photograph shown here). This 1984 William Dowd instrument from Boston is rented out for concerts by its owner, whom I met at intermission. (He even offered to let me play it after the concert, an opportunity I passed up because I had to leave quickly afterward.) Constance Whiteside, a specialist on historical harps, provide continuo color and a few charming solo dance pieces. All the instruments together, including Douglas Wolters on viola da gamba, played Diego Ortiz's Recercada Secunda (which I also heard from the Baltimore Consort), a charming variation set. The French dance pieces in Spanish style, by Michael Praetorius and Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre—originally intended to accompany Baroque dancing by Cheryl Stafford (who had led a workshop on Baroque dance at St. Paul's Center earlier in the day)—were cancelled because of the lack of appropriate floor space in the church. Tant pis pour nous.

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