I think I may have been missing out a bit with the Toronto Consort. I’ve been to the odd show that’s been identifiable as music theatre such as their excellent Play of Daniel but until I sat down with David Fallis and Laura Pudwell a few weeks ago I didn’t really have a clear sense of what they are about. Last night’s concert, Renaissance Splendours, at Trinity St. Paul’s, gave me a pretty good idea of what I’ve been missing and how it fits into my musical universe.
The concert split into four sets. Each one sampled the secular music from a prominent court in the late 16th and very early 17th centuries. The courts chosen were Charles XI of France, Elizabeth I of England, Albrecht V of Bavaria and Isabelle d’Este of Mantua. Although almost contemporaneous the music shows a divergence of style with some of it seeming to be the last flowering of an older tradition and some looking more to the future. I think one of the elements that can be looked at too is how “art music” was beginning to separate itself from both religious music and folk music as monarchs aspired to greater splendour and courts become more ceremonious.
At Francis’ court there were simple strophic songs like Or nous rejouissons (Chardavoine) and more complex motet like material like Allons au vert boccage (Costeley) and dances that were clearly to be danced by the court but demonstrated here by the students of Atelier Ballet School. Elizabeth’s court seems to have been similar. There were “art” songs intended for lute accompaniment by the likes of Dowland, Can shee excuse my wrongs, for example as well as folkier material. A Lamentable new Ballad upon the Earle of Essex his Death is the first example of a pre execution farewell ballad that I have come across. It was a genre that was to persist. Derwentwater’s Farewell, for instance, is similar in style and tone but some 120 years later. Again the dance music is clearly designed for skilled amateurs and the steps would not have fazed Anne Boleyn or Philip Sidney or, indeed, many a church hall in the more rural parts of England or Scotland today. It’s this intersection of “art music” and traditional folk music that very much speaks to me personally.
Albrecht’s court was a bit different. The dominant influence was Orlando Lassus and there’s polyphony all over the place even in part songs like Dessus le marché d’Arras or the strophic and much less serious Im Mayen. Then there is Mantua. This seems to have been a hotbed of innovation. The dominant form here is the strophic song with a clear melody line but being supported by instruments using some sort of harmonic structure and often with choruses sung by, well, a chorus. Modernity indeed! A really good example would be Mantovano’s Lirum bililirum.
This all sounds a bit academic but it wasn’t. The Consort’s performing style is very engaging. There were nine musicians involved last night playing multiple instruments and with at least three of the instrumentalists doubling up as vocalists. It all feels quite informal with roles being swapped around more like a musical house party than a formal concert. There’s also a real sense of trying to get into period style. The vocalists are not operatic, even the opera singers! Laura Pudwell pulled off what not all opera singers can do; sound idiomatic in a ballad! Katherine Hill, when not violing, showed she could be a very engaging singer. I really enjoyed Lirum, bililirum where she took the solo role. The flexibility was shown nicely in Fogliano’s L’amor, dona, ch’io te porto, where the three verses were each taken by a different female voice (Katherine, Michelle Deboer and Laura). And there was a hurdy gurdy. I love hurdy gurdies. The very young dancers of the Atelier Ballet School did a nice job too with a bit of athleticism from Liam Scott demonstrating a galliard.
For the record, last nights version of the Toronto Consort was:
David Fallis; vocals, percussion and pulling it all together
Michelle DeBoer; voclas
Ben Grossman; hurdy gurdy, percussion
Katherine Hill; vocals, bass viol
Paul Jenkins; vocals, harpsichord
Terry McKenna; lute, guitar
John Pepper; vocals
Laura Pudwell; vocals