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Christesmass with Henry VIII

Henry VIII as a young man
King Henry VIII as a young man
Since its founding in 1977, the Folger Consort has been bringing interesting programs of early music to Washington, usually in the beautiful Elizabethan theater of the Folger Shakespeare Library. The group's December concert is usually the best holiday music in the city, and this year's program was no exception. Greensleeves, a selection of Olde Tyme Englishe Musicke™, was intelligently programmed and beautifully performed. It is no surprise that a capacity audience had bought up every seat for the Wednesday performance (December 20). It may be difficult to come by a ticket at this point (tonight, December 22, at 8 pm, or tomorrow, December 23, at 2 and 5 pm), but if you can find one, you will not regret it.

Most of the program was anchored around the reign of King Henry VIII (1509-1547), a monarch who loved music, who composed and sang as well as being a patron. Of the three selections credited to Henry in this concert, the lovely carol Green Groweth the Holly stood out from the others. The best instrumental selections were arranged for three recorders, like the anonymous Ave rex angelorum and the arrangement of Christ Church Bells, with its opening repeated note motif meant to evoke tintinnabulation. Fa la sol, arranged for two recorders and violin, was also charming, the work of William Cornysh, one of Henry VIII's best chapel musicians. The singing -- by tenors Philip Cave and Robert Petillo, bass Bob McDonald, and countertenor Drew Minter -- was certainly good, in some cases exceptional, but not without a few slips here and there. The instrumental portions -- without the other half of the core group, lutenist Christopher Kendall (who has recently begun a new position at the University of Michigan) -- were fine on a range of instruments. In particular, guest artist Tom Zajac's contribution on the bagpipe, in dance selections from the Mulliner Book, was a hit.

Other Reviews:

Cecelia Porter, Folger Consort (Washington Post, December 19)
One of the best things about a Folger Consort program is the chance to discover something completely new, which is especially appreciated in the context of a Christmas concert, when much of the music presented year after year is so disappointingly the same. Ah, My Deare Son, by the other major composer patronized by Henry VIII, Robert Fayrfax, is a fascinating dialogue between Mary and Jesus ("Kiss thy mother, Jesu, with a laughing cheer"), imagined at the moment of Christ's birth and at the moment of the Crucifixion (although not all of it was performed). The anonymous Alone, alone, alone is another dialogue between mother and son, beautifully performed. Walter Lambe's Stella caeli, addressed to Mary, the star of heaven who can stop the plague, is the musical counterpart of the painted altarpieces invoked for their power against the plague. In a similar way, Richard Pygott's Quid petis, o fili is the musical counterpart to painted depictions of the Holy Family, with its child-like babbling of Jesus to his mommy and daddy. Cornysh's Ave Maria, which was announced from the stage as replacing a piece by Walter Lambe, was another happy find, its text not that of the standard prayer but one of the countless variations on it. A drink of Folger Wassail, sadly non-alcoholic, at intermission went nicely with the arrangement of The Somerset Wassail that concluded the concert.

The next concert by the Folger Consort, The Elizabethan Muse: Shakespeare, Byrd, and Dowland, will take place on January 5 and 6 at Washington National Cathedral. It should be a musically superlative way to celebrate the New Year.

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