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Ballets and Branles and Love Songs

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

Country dance (drawing by John Evangelist Holtzer, 17th century), from The Dance: Historic Illustrations of Dancing from 3300 B.C. to 1911 A.D.
The Folger Consort's season thus far has been, well, not exactly a disappointment but not quite in the same category as some of the ensemble's notable successes of recent years. Last night's performance of their new program, Ballets and Brawls: French Music of Court and Countryside (a title reminiscent of a 2007 program), may not merit a rave review, but the selection of music is generally of considerable interest, and the musical quality high enough for me to recommend attending one of the remaining performances. The season takes its theme from the year of publication of Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers, which was the centerpiece of the group's program in this year of the publication's 400th anniversary. For this concert the Folger Consort focused on French music from and around the year 1610, including instrumental pieces intended for various kinds of dancing and love songs performed by two of the group's favorite singers, soprano Rosa Lamoreaux and baritone William Sharp. In addition to some charming comic moments, with plenty of raised eyebrows and winked eyes, the two singers collaborated on some serious songs, the most beautiful of which was Thomas Crequillon's mournful Quand me souvient/Ung triste coeur.

Lute songs celebrating courtly love or the other kind -- with all those couples going for lie-downs on the grass that get them covered with dew -- were the best part of the program. Lamoreaux's silvery, clear voice was ideal for pieces like Etienne Moulinié's Enfin la beauté que j'adore and Pierre Guédron's Un jour l'amoureuse Sylvie, with the gentle accompaniment of lutenist Christopher Kendall. Sharp had his own charming solo moments, showing the expressive side of his voice in Dans ce beau séjour de plaisir, also by Guédron, as well as his hilarious skill as a comic actor with a performance of Gabriel Bataille's drinking song Qui veut chasser un migraine, in which the singer became more and more audibly inebriated. These are pieces in a style that is often forgotten even by specialist performers, too late for the Renaissance and too early for the high Baroque. The only reservation was that occasionally fake reverberation, which appeared to be piped through the sound system's speakers above the stage, ruined the natural acoustic of the Folger's beautiful theater.

The instrumentalists -- founders Kendall and Robert Eisenstein, joined by Gwyn Roberts (recorder and traverso), Dan Stilman (dulcian and recorder), and the multi-talented Tom Zajac -- had their best moments in the second half, as a recorder consort on a suite of dance music arranged by Michael Praetorius and a fantasie by Claude Le Jeune. For some reason, the less heterogeneous instrumental combinations were troubled by intonation issues. This was especially true in the first half, when lute, viol, and transverse flutes just did not generally come to agreement for whatever reason. In the second half, one of those odd-duck combinations (sackbut, dulcian, bass recorder, and viol) did have a beautifully tuned, mellow-toned moment in a fantasie by Eustache Du Caurroy. Also, the transverse flutes did blend better with the recorder, viol, and lute in another Praetorius set, the delightful Ballet de la Comédie, and Zajac had some more wonderful turns with the bagpipe in two sets of branles, one arranged by Attaingnant and the other by Praetorius -- the country dances that gave the English form of their name, brawl, to this pleasing program.

This concert will be repeated today (March 20, 5 and 8 pm) and tomorrow (March 21, 2 pm), at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

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