A year ago, bass Joel Frederiksen and his excellent early music group, Ensemble Phoenix Munich, put out a CD of early-American music called “Rose of Sharon,” after William Billings’s setting of verses from “The Song of Solomon.” On Saturday at the Library of Congress, he and three colleagues — all former members of the Boston Camerata — resurrected selections from the CD.
While it was a pleasure to hear this music, which is too rarely encountered live, the ensemble-lite that Frederiksen put together for the event (voice, violin, guitar and flute) was a pretty pallid echo of the larger and much more exciting and varied forces on the recording. Even one more singer and some percussion might have added a touch of variety and wildness to an afternoon of gentility.
Most of the concert’s energy came from violinist Brandi Berry, whose hoedown riffs, powered by a flashing blur of bow arm on pieces such as “Jefferson and Liberty,” Stephen Foster’s “Oh! Susannah” and the Civil War song “The Army of the Free,” rolled out with irresistible glee. And when Jesse Lepkoff put down his flute, grabbed his penny whistle and tooted along as he did on “Oh! Susannah,” the two of them were a merry band. Guitarist Olav Chris Henriksen, who offered several delicate solos, also served as a fine accompanist.
Frederiksen, who emcee’d the program and took on all the vocal assignments, has the kind of wonderfully resonant, warm basso-profundo production that any vocal ensemble would die for. He opened with what has to be one of the world’s shortest solo processional journeys, a second or two in from backstage, singing a lovely Shaker spiritual. He was at his best in his simple delivery of a set of four other Shaker hymns, as well as in the vigor of the rollicking “Captain Kidd” and in the spiritual, “Sinner Man.” Other more ambitious songs (such as Foster’s gorgeous “Hard Times”) came across as caricatures, unduly sentimental and patronizing.
Reinthaler is a freelance writer