Posted tagged ‘washington early music festival’

Filling in the Silence: Hesperus at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Washington Early Music Festival, June 30, 2012

July 3, 2012

What better way to score a silent film about goings-on in medieval France than with medieval music? Even when the film in question, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” était fabriqué aux Étas-Unis from a source novel written with no obvious concern for historical fact other than that there was a big church named Notre-Dame in Paris at the time.

Hesperus, a powerhouse on the local and national early-music scene, played a medieval soundtrack for the film on Saturday night to close out this year’s Washington Early Music Festival, and their performance — colorful, concentrated, and spontaneous — made it nearly impossible to actually take the movie seriously. The silent-film aesthetic is an acquired one, and Saturday night reminded me that I have not acquired it. The limitiations of the medium lead in Wallace Worsley’s “Hunchback” to exaggeration along every possible axis, from facial expressions to body language to emotions in general. Also, the audiences of the past apparently had a limitless tolerance for watching Lon Chaney as the Hunchback grabbing a rope and ringing a bell. I get that he has great enthusiasm for this task, which is why it could have been filmed from more than one angle, rather than simply replaying the same footage every time.

The movie was not as entertaining as this poster, which must have disappointed many people in 1923. From Wikipedia, saver of souls.

Such artifice made a striking contrast with the music Chancey, Priscilla Smith, and Rosa Lamoreaux sang and played. They effortlessly conjured serenity, rambunctiousness, tension, officiousness, and even (especially) romance. Only a few times, for fractions of a second, did the music and images not match; normally, the music was so well-chosen to seem an integral part of the scene, like a dancing tune to lead a festival of peasants, or a crusty woodwind proclamation to usher in a nobleperson.

The movie gets better when it begins rushing towards its surprisingly intense climax, but here it was difficult to separate the pathos of the Hunchback as he enjoys a glimmer of sympathetic human contact from the pathos generated by this trio of musicians, especially when the texture thinned out and Chancey was left alone to limn a few final notes as the priest (SPOILER ALERT) laid the Hunchback to rest.

The trio kept it up for 100 straight minutes, too — no intermissions here. Smith handled 99 percent of the wind-instrument work, with a full set of recorders as well as a shawm, early bagpipe, and crumhorn, and I saw her shaking her right hand out a few times towards the end of the film, trying to keep it from going stiff. Her playing showed no signs of fatigue, and she expertly matched the timbres of her instruments to the onscreen action, varying her sound and approach. Smith even sang soprano in a few two-voice pieces and didn’t sound totally out of her league next to her fellow soprano Lamoreaux, who is pretty much the early-music singin’ queen of the DMV.

Lamoreaux handled the lead vocals, obviously, and her pure, even voice blended so well with Smith’s recorders that sometimes it was hard to tell which line was which. Lamoreaux also had the lead on percussion, and particularly the difficult job of syncing her bells with the carillioneurship on screen. Chancey played not only the vielle but also several other stringed instruments, also varying her instrumentation to keep the sound lively and using effects to make the movie come alive. (If you’re intrigued, Chancey, Lamoreaux, and two other people will be doing the medieval-scoring thing to “Robin Hood” in B-more at An Die Musik on Friday.)

As noted, the concert closed this year’s Washington Early Music Festival, and during the (enthusiastic) applause, Chancey asked that we direct some of our approbation to Constance Whiteside, the festival’s artistic director and prime mover. Saturday’s concert drew the biggest crowd of the three concerts I attended; fittingly, it took place at St. Mark’s, the church that has been the center of the festival since it began in 2004. While Hesperus had a unique contribution, their concert sat squarely in the larger WEMF tradition of presenting little-known music with enthusiastic, committed performers at reasonable prices. The WEMF is a summertime oasis from the fall-to-summer run of the standard rep played by the standard people. I hope it keeps going strong in the years to come.

Other People’s Perspectives: Anne Midgette. I swear I was not stalking Anne this past weekend.


High Fasch-in’: Fasch and Friends at All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church, Washington Early Music Festival, June 19, 2012

June 20, 2012

For me, a complete Washington Early Music Festival experience includes a midweek concert at which I don’t know what to expect. The concert by Fasch and Friends on Tuesday at the All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church fit that bill: Johann Friederich Fasch is a fairly obscure German Baroque composer, and potentially his friends would be even more obscure. Plus the program had a unifying and alliterative theme, “The Many Moods of the Minor Mode,” in which the Fasch-ists (too much?) would refute the modern idea that minor key => sad by exploring the different characters of the minor mode in the Baroque. Sold!

I sent Fasch a friend request when I got home. He has not yet responded.

On Tuesday, the super Friends did best championing Fasch and (as hoped) two little-known contemporaries. The group’s namesake was represented by one of his quartet sonatas, which as you might guess had one more melodic part than a trio sonata. In this case, two oboes, played by Sarah Weiner and guest Meg Owens, and William Sherfey’s bassoon joined the continuo, composed of Thomas MacCracken on harpsichord  and Yayoi Barrack on viola da gamba. In this D minor quartet, Fasch played around with the distribution of the melodic material among the three soloists; sometimes the bassoon would dialogue with the oboes playing in unison, and sometimes the oboes would chatter between themselves as the bassoon provided support. With Sherfey sitting across from Weiner and Owens, the dialogic effect came across nicely, and the melodies sounded fresh as a consequence.

A trio in G minor by Georg Philip Telemann for two recorders (Weiner and Sherfey, in another of their many roles on Tuesday) and continuo received another affectionate, stylish performance. But when Weiner took up the oboe for another Telemann trio (this one in A minor) that also featured Sherfey’s recorder, Weiner had trouble compassing the more virtuosic flourishes, starting slightly late and then rushing through to keep up. Barrack had trouble getting her melodies lined up correctly and intoned properly in her solo number, which came in a reconstruction of a trio in E minor by some guy named Johann Sebastian Bach, though as a continuo player she provided strong support in the rest of the concert.

Passing through all the common Baroque minor keys, one could draw few broad conclusions about their various characters; as MacCracken noted, a single minor key can sound very different even within a work. But the various ways a minor key can sound — melancholy, energetic, stately, tranquil — certainly came across, and the minor mode never became monotonous. The diversity of instrumentation helped, and the most notable diversity came in a trio for three recorders and nothin’ else by the Baroque composer and theorist Johann Mattheson. (For those of us who enjoy attempting to pronounce German names in an exaggerated fashion, this concert was pure gold.) Here Weiner, Sherfey, and MacCracken teamed up without the support of basso continuo and kept the music aloft with sparkling interplay, especially in a Gigue finale that induced my foot to tap.

All Souls Church is a handsome space but not the best concert venue; a bird chirped from somewhere in the rafters for the entire evening (though the winds of the Fascians were louder, thank goodness), and the HVAC system apparently would have drowned out the performers, meaning we did not have air conditioning on Tuesday night, which made the church as stifling as you would imagine. Still, a quartet by Johann Gottlieb Janitsch, featuring the most interesting of all the instrumental combinations on Tuesday’s program — flute, oboe, viola, and basso continuo — made it worthwhile to sweat it out until the end of the concert. (The WEMF program makes a very handy fan.)

To play it, Sherfey switched to the harpsichord, MacCracken manned the baroque flute, guest Leslie Nero handled the viola, and Weiner stayed fast on the oboe. After a concertful of sturdy harpsichording, MacCracken made the flute dance nimbly with the other instruments, Nero tossed off her lines with her usual élan, Weiner helped the unusual texture come together, and Sherfey and Barrack anchored the whole thing. I can’t say I had ever heard the name Johann Gottlieb Janitsch before Fasch and Friends introduced his music to me, but I’ll remember this performance — just what you’re looking for when you don’t know what to expect.


This is what I thought of when I first read the group name “Fasch and Friends.”

Also, when MacCracken announced that he was grateful for Sherfey agreeing to play the concert even though it was his birthday, I was hoping that the other instrumentalists would play “Happy Birthday” and MacCracken would get us all to sing. Either that or 50’s “In Da Club.” Maybe Sherfey was sad because he apparently does not have a decent bio page on the Internet that I can link to in this review.

Equal to the Task: Les Inégales at St. George’s Episcopal Church, Washington Early Music Festival, June 9, 2012

June 11, 2012

Two members of Les Inégales came down from the Northeast to the Washington Early Music Festival on Saturday night, bringing along contralto Imelda Franklin Bogue and viola da gamba player Anne Legêne for a program titled “Lover’s Quarrels” at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Arlington. The ensemble selected movements from instrumental works to introduce four vocal laments of tempestuous love, thus ensuring that one’s ears did not tire of any one combination of sounds or compositional style, and packed a whole lot of musical incident into 75 intermissionless minutes.

Les Inégales, trading notes. From their Facebook page.

Both of the Inégalistes shone Saturday. Christine Gevert had the advantage of a fantastic harpsichord, sonorous yet tangy with overtones; the church’s diffuse acoustic blunted its twang a bit but could not disguise the incisiveness of her playing. Gevert drove Giovanni Felice Sances’ cantata “Usupator tiranno” forward at an implacable rhythm, mimicking the lover’s thought process and emphasizing the arresting dramatic turn when the rhythm suddenly shifted on the phrase “If you didn’t love me I wouldn’t adore you.” Gevert had the measure of more subtle accompaniment as well, imaginatively voicing her chords and keeping the rhythms light and springy. In her one solo piece, Michelangelo Rossi’s “Settima Toccata,” Gevert relished the free rhythms and the daring harmonies, piling up dissonances and chromatic runs towards the end of the piece like waves crashing on a shore.

St. George’s made Rodrigo Tarraza’s Baroque traverse flutes sound even cooler than normal; in quiet moments, the sound hung in the air like a spectre, making his playing in Francois Couperin’s “The Nightingale of Love” even more evocative. Tarraza carefully shaped the bird-inspired melodies, sounding completely different from the guy who so aggressively ornamented the Preludio movement from Arcangelo Corelli’s Sonata in E minor (Op. 5, No. 8) that it earned him an appreciative, raised eyebrow from Legêne. Throughout the concert, he seemed to relish whatever style he was asked to essay; my favorite was his rendition of Pietro Antonio Locatelli’s Sonata IV in G Major, Op. 2, full of daredevil runs yet always graceful in the melodies.

While Legêne held down her end of the continuo with a nice firm tone, she didn’t show quite as much individuality as Gevert and Tarraza. When she had the spotlight in Marin Marais’ Suite in A minor, the melodies never quite took flight, and in Jean-Marie Leclair’s Trio Sonata Op. 2, No. 8, which gives the gamba and flute equal melodic prominence, Tarraza’s flute made the gamba recede from the picture a little.

Bogue’s first couple songs sounded like a stream of vowels, as the church swallowed up her consonant sounds. It is a tribute to the songs themselves and Bogue’s sharp characterizations thereof that these performances still commanded attention. Bogue corrected the problem in her performance of “Dolce pur d’amor l’affanno,” an Italian cantata by George Frideric Handel (the most famous composer on the program by far), setting the stage for Handel’s “Mi palpita il cor”: the concert’s finale, its longest work, and the first piece on Saturday to feature all four musicians at once.

Here the group exploded into the opening section, whose one line of text translates as “My heart throbs, and I do not understand why,” with Gevert and Legêne attacking hard and Bogue soaring and swooping in a musical statement all the more powerful for its concision. When Handel gave them a whole aria and allowed Tarraza to join the fun, the passion became less concentrated but more richly detailed and expressive, Bogue lamenting in luminous voice above keen playing from the three instrumentalists. A fierce following recitative led to an even more expressive closing aria, contrasting the hope of contentment in love with the turmoil that had preceded it.

This climactic performance, not to mention all the well-chosen, expertly sequenced music that preceded it, fit perfectly this year’s WEMF theme, “Vices & Virtues — Passionate Music of Early Europe.” It also led to an unusual amount of applause from a grateful audience, one of whose members was moved to stand up and urge his cohort to bring someone folks half their age to the next festival concert they attended, to ensure the future of classical music. (Or something like that; I didn’t write it down.) I don’t know whether mere exposure can produce an affinity for this music, but a concert like the one Les Inégales presented Saturday would be the thing to do it.


It’s a nice laid-back atmosphere, in a neighborhood church somewhere near a Metro station, with people who really enjoy music both onstage and in the audience. You don’t have to dress up or know much about what you’re hearing — most of the audience hasn’t heard anything in these concerts before. Actually, they would be pretty awesome concerts to drag young people to, although I was probably half that dude’s age so who knows. Anyway, I cannot stress enough how much I look forward to WEMF concerts.

Dear Summer: Washington Early Music Festival and National Orchestral Institute

June 4, 2012

Just wanted to write a quick note about the onrushing plethora of interesting concerts in D.C. Anne Midgette had a fuller breakdown in Sunday’s Post, but my upcoming highlights are the Washington Early Music Festival and the National Orchestral Institute and Festival.

The biannual WEMF presents mostly local groups specializing in Baroque and before, though this year as in the past some outstanding out-of-towners are sprinkled in. Everything in the following paragraph from the WEMF’s “About” page is correct:

The Festival demographics include a younger and more diverse audience than is often seen at many music events. The audiences include students, families, and young couples as well as the more mature audience support base typical of early music events. It also draws a highly educated and sophisticated group of business and government people. Our audiences are enthusiastic. We have an established and loyal audience base. It is also common for us to see new people attending one concert, becoming excited about the Festival program, and returning to attend several more concerts.

For example, I will be attempting to cajole my fiancee into attending three WEMF concerts this month — the Les Inegales performance on June 9, “Fasch and Friends” exploring the doctrine of affects on June 19, and Hesperus scoring “The Hunchback” on June 30. Typically the performers talk about why they like the music they’re playing and play like they’re really enjoying it, and the churches in which they play run small enough to allow them to connect with the audience. At WEMF shows, it’s not uncommon for me to hear something I’ve never heard before and love it immediately, which is one of the great pleasures of concertgoing.

The only thing stopping me from attending more WEMF shows, besides my employment, is the NOI. For a quarter of a century the NOI has been bringing student musicians to College Park to teach them the ways of the orchestral trade, and oh yeah to also put on some inspiring concerts, played with all the passionate conviction that has not yet been stripped from them by post-graduation disappointment and consequent cynicism. I felt strongly enough about NOI’s awesomeness to write a feature about it a while back, and everything there remains true. I’m going to hear Leonard Slatkin conduct the youths on June 16, and of course I’ll be there for this year’s edition of the “New Lights” chamber music concert, since it so dazzled me in 2010.

The NOI is full of young people. This is last year’s NOI, but it’s always the same. Photo by Stan Barouth.

Those aren’t all the concerts I am attending in June — I am so there for the Philip Glass world premiere that the Baltimore Symphony is presenting as part of its War of 1812 bicentennial, assuming I can figure out how to fit it in with the Nats game I may be attending earlier that day. If kind weather and a free evening present themselves simultaneously, our various military bands always offer an attractive pops program and scenic prospect. I may also add another group or two if I can. (I am supposedly planning a wedding now, too.) But I wanted to call the greater Internet’s attention to WEMF and NOI, two stalwarts of early summer and great places to plop you butt down in air conditioning and hear some personal, joyful, inspired music-making.

With a Love That Will Echo Through the Ages: Armonia Nova, Washington Early Music Festival, June 25, 2010

June 29, 2010

Armonia Nova‘s performance of French love songs from the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries (with special guest performer Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek) at St. Mark’s on Capitol Hill on Friday night, the penultimate concert in the Washington Early Music Festival, bridged the gap between medieval times and ours, sounding strikingly immediate and real.

Constance Whiteside, historical harpist, artistic director of Armonia Nova, and co-founder and director of the WEMF, compared the songs’ rhythmic complexity to that of jazz, even going so far as to say “I kind of like to think of [Guillaume de] Machaut as the Cab Calloway of the 14th century.” The relentless juxtaposition of duple and triple rhythms in Machaut’s songs (particularly the “Chanson balladee” that opened the concert) showed where she was coming from, and the medieval scales, with their intervals of differing sweetness and “crunch,” gave a blue feel to some of the harmonies.

Whiteside also improvised solos before many of the songs, playing deftly in and around the song’s harmonies and melodies in ways any jazz accompanist would recognize. And when she and early violinist Craig Resta (here fiddlin’ the vielle) essayed instrumental numbers, they threw in a little sparkle; Resta’s “La seste estampie real,” from the Paris Bibliotheque, had an intense rhythmic spring, and in “Hont paur,” from the Faenza codex, Whiteside suspended the melody in the air like a string of jewels, with the perfect distance between them to just barely hint at a dance.

Still, when you’re listening to songs, you’re mostly listening to the singers. In her remarks, Whiteside also correctly noted that the matters of the heart with which these songs concern themselves — bliss, lamentation, jealousy, yearning, et alia — continue to bedevil Homo sapiens to this day. Horner-Kwiatek and Armonia Nova’s soprano Allison Mondel, mezzo/alto Marjorie Bunday, and countertenor Jay White made sure that the emotions came to us across the centuries.

We got a comic battle-of-the-sexes duet, just like Ludacris, only with more melodic refinement: Horner-Kwiatek and White sparred in an oldie from the 1200s called “Dites, seignur,” with Horner-Kwiatek holding the upper hand, not only dramatically but also because the song showed White’s vocal production to be a little strained and pinched on Friday night.

Some songs featured the lyrically indecipherable feat of two artists singing completely different words at the same time; in such cases, one could simply sit back and enjoy the melodies, particularly in “En non Dieu — Quant voi,” where Mondel and Horner-Kwiatek delivered haunting twin laments. Others took momentary, welcome looks at the upbeat side of love, with Bunday delivering a jaunty “Contre dolour” that indeed struck a distinct blow against sadness. And we got a couple fun numbers for the whole ensemble, with a particularly infectious “Chanson de rencontre,” with interpolated passages from an instrumental dance in the same estampie, to close the show.

A few of the songs sounded genuinely weird, like when Whiteside and Resta played accompaniments whose melodies barely intersected with the vocal line; in a song like “Beaute parfaite,” by Antonello da Caserta, this intensified the separation between two lovers described in the lyrics. The generally dislocating feel of such accompaniment also made it an effective intensifier of laments, like in Guillaume Dufay’s “Je me complains piteusement.” (The French language was, helpfully, pretty recognizable to modern readers at this point in history.)

But the sad songs stick out in the memory most, particularly those sung by Horner-Kwiatek. A member of Anonymous 4, which is the early-music group you know if you know only one early-music group, she showed throughout the concert why someone might consider it a coup to bring her in as a guest artist, excelling Mondel and Bunday just a little in purity of tone, clarity of diction, and imaginative phrasing. Her melisma in Dufay’s “Belle, vueilles vostre mercy donner” (“Fair one, please be merciful to me”) coruscated effortlessly, and she navigated the complexity of the melody with such grace that the performance seemed an embodiment of the song’s longing. Her “Onqes n’amai” (“Never did I love”) had a similar century-spanning effect, where the surroundings in St. Mark’s seemed to melt away, leaving only the longing in her voice behind.

Horner-Kwiatek’s performances did a wonderful service to this repertoire; her presence alongside the hometown Armonia Nova confirmed once again that the Washington Early Music Festival reliably provides committed, engaging performances of under-heard music. I can’t believe we have to wait two years now for another festival.

Other People’s Perspectives: Joe Banno.

Aux Champs-Elysées: La Ménéstrandise, Washington Early Music Festival, June 16, 2010

June 17, 2010

Though I didn’t manage to get to a Washington Early Music Festival concert this year until Wednesday night, a little over halfway through the month-long celebration (this year’s theme: music of France), the concert I attended at Capitol Hill United Methodist Church reminded me why I love this festival. The performers, a group called La Ménéstrandise, provided all the usual WEMF accoutrements: Repertoire handpicked from the dustier corners of history, performances with enthusiasm and care enough to make them shine anew, and a casual atmosphere befitting early summer, including info about the compositions coming from the performers rather than from program notes.

The concert, titled “Springtime in Paris,” presented a variety of music written and performed in the City of Lights in the early 1700s. La Ménéstrandise can handle variety, with David Brundage playing both oboe and recorder as necessary, Michael Holmes on recorder, Douglas Wolter packing multiple violas da gamba, Millie Martin handling the bass, and Vera Kochanowsky on harpsichord. This lineup provides the personnel necessary for your standard solo and duo wind sonatas, and La Ménéstrandise found some fun ones to perform.

Admittedly, Joseph Bodin de Boismortier’s Trio in B flat major (Op. 41, no. 3) and Jean Baptiste Loeillet de Gant’s Oboe sonata in E minor (Op. 5, no. 1) did not receive the most polished playing of the evening, particularly from Brundage and Holmes; some notes were ill-sounded, some off-beat. Yet the bubbly quality of the Boismortier made it the perfect springtime apertif, with a nicely flowing opening Allegro and an Affetuoso in which Brundage (on oboe) and Holmes spooned just the right amount of sentiment on the melody.

The playing improved for two works by Jacques Martin Hotteterre. In the Trio Sonata in G minor (Op. 3, no. 4), Brundage switched to recorder, in what he said was an attempt to emulate the composer, who was also a noted multi-instrumentalist in his time. (Brundage could have another career as a professional announcer; that guy’s smooth, deep voice must have its own in-throat resonance chamber to make it extra golden.) Holmes and Brundage combined to make some delightful noises, particularly in the Fugue, which whipped itself up into some real momentum. As Martin sat out this one, Wolter’s viola da gamba playing became more prominent, and he smoothly drove the counterpoint along, with fine support from Kochanowsky. Hotteterre’s concert-closing Trio sonata in D major featured Brundage back on oboe and everyone having a ton of fun, especially with the hard snaps in the rhythm of the otherwise buoyant Courante. I’d love to hear some more Hotteterre sometime, even if I do have to look really hard at his name in order to spell it properly.

Happily, in among the windy outbursts, the group also gave some solo time to what I call the Baroque rhythm section (aka basso continuo) of viola da gamba, bass, and harpsichord. Martin gave us the novelty of early Baroque solo bass pieces, by a composer who, she explained, no one knows much about (the name “Dubuisson” under which the pieces were published was probably a pseudonym). Just the sound of the solo bass doing virtuoso stuff was a treat, although Martin had to wrestle double-stopped chords from her instrument and occasionally had trouble pinning them down. Kochanowsky got to show off both her playing and her harpsichord in two pieces by Francois Couperin, one of which, “Le Tic-Toc-Choc ou les Maillotins,” required the use of both her instrument’s manuals (a pièce croisée). Kochanowsky got all kinds of zesty color from her harpsichord, while playing with an infectious rhythmic spring that had my toes a-tapping.

Wolter switched to a seven-string instrument for his solo spot, a Suite in D major by Marin Marais, whose music never fails to interest. Wolter gave a little disquisition on the unique features of the viola da gamba, which was fun. Then he and Coriolana Simon, who played viola da gamba with Kochanowsky to form the basso continuo, embarked on a marathon tuning session, which was not fun, although Wednesday’s oppressive humidity probably deserves primary blame. Once that was over, Wolter showed some really thrilling virtuosity. His instrument sounded terrific, especially with that seventh low string creating fat smears of bass sound for which Kochanowsky’s big chords made robust accompaniment. Wolter also has a bit of the swagger about him, and it served him well in the melodic outburst of a “Prelude” that opens the suite and the dazzlingly inventive extended “Rondeau” that closes it, as well as in the vigorous shorter dance pieces that made up most of the suite.

So almost everything was really fun, and in a chilled-out, personable way. (Another example of the latter attribute: After intermission, Brundage told the story of Handel’s appointment as Kappelmeister to George, Elector of Hanover, which Handel skipped out on by going to England, for no obvious reason other than the appointment was 400 years ago Wednesday. It was a nice touch, and wittily presented.) I wish I could go to all the WEMF concerts, but the only other one I’m actually going to attend is June 25. (Here’s the schedule for your planning purposes.) All the programs have been hand-selected for your pleasure, and you’ll probably discover something new that you like a lot, in a perfect atmosphere for trying things out.


When I was searching for info on the Couperin, I kept coming up with Ke$ha search results. As nauseating as I find her music, I have to admit that if there was a remix to “Tik Tok” featuring a “Tic-Toc-Choc” sample, I would be compelled to listen to it a lot. Enterprising producers: Make it happen! It’s like the “Grey Album” but with Baroque music!