For those who plan concerts, anniversaries can provide a convenient crutch. Or unexpected inspiration. In its Sunday (March 13) concert for the San Diego Early Music Society in La Jolla, the visiting Baltimore Consort used 2016’s status as the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare to organize its program in small clusters of works related to each of ten of the Bard’s plays.
This moderately clever approach proved more than convenient and less than inspired, but the high caliber of Baltimore’s performance and the vitality its six players brought to their late Renaissance songs and dances compensated admirably.
Soprano Danielle Svonavec brought not only her bright, supple soprano voice with its gleaming upper register to this instrumental quintet, but she also added welcome dramatic flourishes and wry humor. For the “Gravedigger’s Song” from Hamlet, for example, Svonavec came out wearing workman’s overalls and toting a very large shovel. She sang this strange song using a broad working-class accent and opaque dialect such as one encounters in the north of England.
For Puck’s boisterous “The Mad, Merry Pranks of Robin Goodfellow” from Midsummer Night’s Dream, she started singing as she sauntered up the aisle of St. James Episcopal Church, and when she got to her colleagues seated on the small riser in the center of the chancel, she played tricks on them—tossing their music off its stand, putting her gravedigger’s knit cap over the head of cittern player Mark Cudek, and taking a selfie with bass viol wizard Larry Lipkis—all the while singing her self-aggrandizing lyrics without dropping a note.
She could be pensive and appropriately morose, as the “Willow Song” from Othello requires, and she intoned the ghostly lyics of Robert Johnson’s “Full fathom five” from The Tempest with a suitably plaintive air.
Her instrumental colleagues proved much more staid in their performance demeanor, following the earnest customs of early music performance, when it was done largely by amateurs and musicology graduate students. A charming exception occurred when Lipkis took his recorder and walked over to transverse flute player Mindy Rosenfeld as if to engage her is a flutists’ duel during the lively instrumental piece “The Buffens,” a vivacious French dance from 1559 Baltimore thought matched the spirit of Twelfth Night. Rosenfeld played a variety of wooden transverse flutes and recorders throughout the concert with fleet, assured articulation and an unusually warm timbre from the transverse flutes.
I admired the flourish and delicate definition of lutenist Ronn McFarlane, whose presence was required in nearly every piece, whether he was laying out complex figures in John Dowland’s lute solo “Fancy,” accompanying the delicate gemshorn (a flute made from an animal horn) in one of the “Greensleeves” variations, or adding piquant texture to the full ensemble in a lively dance such as “Kemp’s Jig,” named for Will Kemp, one of the great clowns in Shakespeare’s acting troupe.
Mary Anne Ballard’s precise, nimble variations on treble viol caught my ear in “Complain my lute,” and Cudek’s twangy cittern solo “Peg a Ramsey Playford” from a music book published decades after the Bard’s demise reminded the audience why this acoustic monster fell out of favor only to be reborn centuries later with enhanced electronic muscle in the Fender Stratocaster.
This concert was presented by the San Diego Early Music Society on March 13, 2016, in the sanctuary of La Jolla’s St. James-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church. The Society’s next offering is “Il Flauto Veneziano” on April 3, 2016, in the Performing Arts Theatre of Cuyamaca College.