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Baltimore Consort's Christmas Dances

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

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Bright Day Star: Music for the Yuletide Season, Baltimore Consort

Snow prevented me from reviewing last year's Christmas concert program from the Baltimore Consort, a version of their Christmas CD Bright Day Star (which I have yet to hear, too). The group was back at the Strathmore Mansion on Sunday evening with another Christmas program called Wassail, Wassail!, which viol player Mary Anne Ballard explained was an attempt to show that many of the most familiar Christmas melodies have roots in Renaissance dance, although most of their texts are from the 19th century or later. It could have been a recipe for disappointment, with music that is all cut from the same, very basic cloth -- not unlike my experience with Harmonious Blacksmith's Christmas program earlier this month -- but the arrangements favored by the group emphasize such lively rhythms and active divisions when ornamenting melodies that it was difficult to lose interest for long. The Baltimore Consort style of arrangement for these old tunes became fairly predictable, however, after not many numbers: a lot of active strumming and twanging from lute and cittern, percussive pizzicati and thumps on the bass notes from the viol, with floridly decorated skittering from recorder (or various kinds of flutes and whistles) and violin or rebec.

Other Articles:

Marie Gullard, Baltimore Consort wassails Renaissance-style at Strathmore (Washington Examiner, December 18)
The group proudly calls what it does a mix of early and folk music, but at times the sound leaned too close to 70s folk rock, the syncopations sounding more like the Age of Aquarius than the Age of Galileo, as in the bouncy rendition of Gaudete, Christus est natus. It seemed most effective in the hypnotic arrangement of Babe of Bethlehem, a simple tune collected in Southern Harmony. This piece also featured soprano Danielle Svonavec in a beautiful light: a clear voice perhaps straightened unnaturally a bit too much in a folksy way, skewing the pitch downward just slightly at times. She was at her best in an extraordinary, unaccompanied Scottish tune, One Yeir Begins, where she covered a broad melodic compass with superb flexibility and a credible Scottish burr. The final selection, an arrangement of the French tune Noel nouvelet, definitely crossed the border into folk rock, with the strummed strings, guitar-like, crashing rhythmically on booming, repeated bass lines. The encore was another version of the timeless melody known as Greensleeves, set to a New Year's carol text (The Old Year Now Has Passed Away).

This concert being the last Christmas program on my calendar for the year, it is time to announce that the Ionarts Best Christmas Concert Award goes, for the second year in a row, to Anonymous 4 for its Noël: Carols and Chants for Christmas concert last week. Honorable mention goes to the beautiful concert by the Tallis Scholars and the Folger Consort at Georgetown, which was just as well performed but not as ingeniously programmed.

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