Wayward Sisters have landed awards, but should keep searching for an identity

Nelson Fitch - Wayward Sisters: Left to right, Beth Wenstrom, Anne Timberlake, Anna Steinhoff, and John Lenti.

Early music — music written before about 1750 — is a burgeoning field, but still, for the general public, a specialized one. And though its practitioners include some of the most acclaimed stars working today — William Christie, Jordi Savall, Rene Jacobs — in the aggregate, particularly in smaller, local ensembles, it can take on a sort of grass-roots, homegrown, hippie vibe.

The Washington Early Music Festival, which runs all this month, definitely promulgates the homemade side of the field; its program cover, a collage of clip-art medieval manuscripts, looks like it was assembled by a 12-year-old. Its groups, earnest and well-meaning, are all over the map, geographically and in terms of ability. And for those who love this music, it’s a great chance to hear a lot of it, never knowing when you’re going to strike gold.

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The Wayward Sisters, who performed Saturday night at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill, are theoretically at the upper end of the hierarchy: a quartet of young artists with strong pedigrees (the violinist, Beth Wenstrom, was in the first class of Juilliard’s new historical performance division) who just won the Early Music America/Naxos recording competition.

The program, on paper, looked terrific: an introduction to the music of the fiery, opinionated, irascible 17th-century British composer Matthew Locke, with some other works by his contemporaries, including the Italian violinist Nicola Matteis, who was all the rage in London in the 1670s and 1680s and whom Locke cordially, or not so cordially, loathed.

The audience was very enthusiastic about what they delivered. There was some strong playing, especially from Wenstrom; an interesting assortment of music most people had probably not heard before, from “Two in One Upon a Ground” by Henry Purcell Sr. (the father of the better-known composer), with velvety pizzicatos underlying the shining violin; some flashy crowd-pleasers by Matteis; and four suites by Locke that were every bit as quirky and arresting as his biography might lead one to expect.

From the way I’ve phrased this, you can tell that I had some reservations, though I’m not sure it’s really a criticism of a young group to say that I’m not ready to crown it the Next Great Thing.

This ensemble is still visibly forging an identity, and the best way to do that is get out there and give a lot of concerts. Washington — by the admission of the group’s sole man, John Lenti, who was adroit on guitar and reliable on the theorbo — happens to have gotten to hear it very early in its trajectory.

That the members are finding their sea legs could be inferred by the fact that the second half of the program was markedly better than the first.

At the beginning, perhaps adjusting to playing in a new space, they often didn’t play together, and the recorder (Anne Timberlake) consistently sounded out of tune with the three strings (Anna Steinhoff, on baroque cello, rounded out the quartet).

After intermission, starting with Locke’s Suite No. 2 in G, the playing seemed more incisive, the instruments better balanced, and by the final movement of the final suite in G minor, a country dance, they found the energy and pizzazz within the music.

My real criticism of the evening, then, is less of the group in particular than of the field in general.

These are young artists who have been carefully groomed and then given a high award, and yet their performance seemed a little wet behind the ears. They deserve, certainly, to be encouraged, but their playing didn’t show that they yet deserve to be given accolades.

But to say that they fell short of expectations is more an indictment of the field’s standards than their own weaknesses.

This is a promising group, and I hope they flourish; I also hope they learn to aim a ­little bit higher, to make their evening fully as exciting as Locke’s biography, and music, merit.

The Washington Early Music Festival

continues through June 30; the next concert, by the group Friends of Fasch, takes place Tuesday.

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