NUVO-Early Music Festival, July 7 & 9, 2006, Tom Aldridge
Though perhaps a bit loose, a connection can be made between our Independence Day holiday and Columbus’ discovery of America, Last Friday, the Baltimore Consort celebrated these two signal events of New World history by offering music from the Spain of the Columbus era.
This six-performer group had previously appeared under Festival Music Society auspices 16 years ago, according to FMS musical director Frank Cooper. They’ve clearly been away too long: their program and concert were a roaring success, getting a standing ovation and an encore. These players delivered the pizzazz in spades that Seattle’s Baroque Northwest lacked two weeks ago in the first Early Music Festival weekend. Baltimore Consort performed last weekend as part of the Festival Music Society’s Early Music Festival.
Drawing music from and using instruments of the 15th and 16th centuries by Christians, Jews and Muslims — three cultures allowed for centuries to thrive together (why can’t they now?) in Spain until 1492, the year Columbus made his big discovery — the Baltimore Consort provided a great variety of moods, instrumental textures and the dominating voice of countertenor Jose Lemos.
The instruments the five other players used included treble, tenor and bass viols (held between the knees), guitars, recorders, crumhorns, percussion, flutes and one lute. Their most-often-featured composer, Juan del Encina (1468–1529) had his pieces interspersed among selections by Diego Ortiz, Francisco de la Torre, Pedro Guererro and from anonymous Sephardic Jewish sources.
In one anonymous selection, “Ora baila tu,” three crumhorns (double-reed instruments with cane-like crooks at their ends) of differing sizes were used, providing the most “nasal” timbres I can recall ever hearing in my life. The rhythms complex and changing formed a big part of this group’s programming and playing attraction. From wistful and pensive to fleet and dance-like, variety and stylistic excellence marked the Baltimore Consort’s playing.
As the selections were predominately vocal, Lemos was employed throughout, demonstrating one of the most beautiful countertenor voices I’ve ever heard. Singing effortlessly into the mezzosoprano register, Lemos delivers as high a pitch as one can imagine without attendant prepubescent surgery (Lemos talks in a normal-pitched male voice). More importantly, his range from a high tenor on up betrays no obvious transition to falsetto, his control and his inflections a marvel to hear. Lemos put the cap on one of the most enjoyable evenings of early music.
Enlightening better describes Sunday evening’s concert, featuring the New Orleans Musica da Camera, now celebrating its 40th season and surviving Katrina. From the Spanish Renaissance, we retreat into the Medieval period with yet another six-performer group, one of them yet another singer this time a female soprano. The music dates from the 12th to the 14th centuries, and requires a further adjustment in absorbing the remote styles. Similar instruments were used by the Baltimore group; with the addition of a medieval hurdygurdy and a small harp, the group’s most interesting offering comprised the second half: seven Cantigas d’amigo, Europe’s oldest surviving song cycle, by Martin Codax, who lived for some period in the 1200s.