“The idea is to pretend we’re in Elizabethan England,” said Renaissance flautist Jeffrey Cohan on Sunday night, but of course we were all actually in St. Mark’s Episcopal Church for this year’s first Capitol Hill Chamber Music Festival concert. Cohan and his transverse flutes formed one-third of a “broken consort” (i.e., one composed of different instruments) that also featured local period standout Tina Chancey on Renaissance violin and viola da gamba and accomplished harpsichordist Joseph Gascho. Together, they traversed various periods and nationalities of music, giving the flavor of each in repertoire that would be unknown even to most hard-core classical music fans. (I certainly didn’t know any of these works before entering St. Mark’s, and I only knew a few of the composers.)
Once these musicians got past the introductory bars of each piece — more than a few times, someone entered late or not at all, and the trio had to restart — Cohan, Yancey, and Gascho breathed fresh life into the music they played. If one was of a scholarly bent (i.e., me), they made it easy to hear the differences between the various sections of the program. If not, there was simply a lot of fun music to enjoy.
The relentless ornamentation of the cantus firmus melodic line in early Renaissance music came across most strongly a welcome novelty, a stiflingly busy take on the tune “Taunder naken” written by obscure composer Henry VIII. The flute Cohan used for this and the other earlier music played incredibly softly, making the distance between then and now even more audible than normal; Gascho, taking a turn on the viol for this section, and Yancey audibly restrained their volume, and Cohan’s playing grabbed plenty of attention.
One could hardly wish for a more vivid contrast than early Baroque composer Bartolomeo De Selma e Salaverde’s “Canzon Prima à Due. Soprano e Basso,” in which, in Yancey’s words, she and Cohan “traded fours,” each daring the other to new levels of solo virtuosity over Gascho’s minimal (yet smartly phrased) harpsichord accompaniment. The openness of the texture, the move towards the major mode and more structured harmonies, the cleanness of the melodic lines — it was a world away.
Italy, France, and England each got a chance to shine as well, and the melodic fluency of the Italian selections, particularly Cohan’s spirited melodic corcuscations in Girolamo Dalla Casa’s “Petite fleur coincte et jolye,” contrasted strongly with the more rhythmic French works; two trios by Pierre Clereau elicited particularly emphatic and rousing playing. Italy, however, also brought Chancey improvising over “La Bergamasca,” which showed off her rhythmic boldness and a facility for bubbly ornamentation.
Cohan described the final, English-music section of the program, after the Baroque excursion, as returning “to the present time,” which Yancey amended to “the present time then.” If a national character was not as discernible here, the performances still sparkled, particularly the eccentric “Coockow as I me walked” by John Baldwyn and the vigorous dance of “Hugh Ashton’s Maske,” written, appropriately enough, by Hugh Ashton.
Between Cohan’s efforts on Capitol Hill, the biannual Washington Early Music Festival, and concerts by groups like Armonia Nova, the Bach Sinfonia, and others, the DMV has a surplus of intimate concerts by local musicians where the musicians select interesting, little-known music, discuss it conversationally with the audience (including details about instrumentation and musical forms), and play it with enough enthusiasm and skill to make you like it as much as they do. I almost always enjoy these concerts, and Sunday’s was one of the better ones. The Capitol Hill Chamber Music Festival now goes silent for a few months, but it deserves your attention when it returns.
Other People’s Perpsectives: Joe Banno.
PENALTY ON THE MUSICIANS, FIVE YARDS, REPEAT FIRST BAR
After the first time the ensemble had a false start, I wanted to signal after every subsequent one, just like if I was watching the Redskins offensive line. It was strange to me that such fun performances could start so haltingly.