Old, English And Very Polished
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 21, 2004; Page C01
It was possible to indulge in a delicious illusion of time travel over the weekend on Capitol Hill. Walking northwest from the throng at Eastern Market, enjoying a break in the heat, one turned left onto A Street SE and wandered through a 19th-century urban vista, coming eventually to St. Mark's Episcopal Church, wherein the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were alive and well.
The first Washington Early Music Festival concluded three weeks of performances yesterday with a program titled "Food of Love: Early Instrumental Music From the British Isles." It was the last of a dozen events -- workshops, demonstrations and concerts -- that have been presented not only at St. Mark's but also at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Northwest Washington, the Franciscan Monastery in Northeast and St. Dunstan's Episcopal Church in Bethesda.
Over the course of the festival, there have been performances by groups with colorful names like the Suspicious Cheese Lords, Armonia Nova, the Chesapeake Viol Consort and the Washington Cornett and Sackbutt Ensemble. There was a concert made up entirely of music performed at the coronation of George II in Westminster Abbey on Oct. 11, 1727, with works by Henry Purcell, Thomas Tallis and Orlando Gibbons, and the four anthems composed by George Frideric Handel especially for the occasion. There were free recitals of works by William Byrd and John Bull for harpsichord (played by Atsuko Ikeda) and organ (Keith Reas).
Referring to distinct musical periods ("the Modern era," "the Romantic age" and so on) can be a helpful shorthand. But to speak of "early music" -- a term generally understood to include all music from the Baroque and before -- is to encompass such a vast repertory that it could mean almost anything. An early-music festival might conceivably include, say, the fragments of melody that survive from ancient Greece, Gregorian chant, the lusty songs from the 13th-century "Carmina Burana" manuscript (best known in Carl Orff's modernist-medievalist 1936 reconstitution), the operas of Claudio Monteverdi and Handel's "Messiah."
But putting these disparate works all together would make for the sort of motley that is sometimes referred to as a dog's breakfast (although it would feed one very lucky dog!). And so the presenters of the Washington Early Music Festival wisely decided to limit their field, choosing to focus on one nation per year. For this inaugural offering, the purview was English music written before 1750.
There was still plenty of variety -- blissful devotional anthems and rowdy songs of love; gentle meditations for harpsichord and ringing celebrations for orchestra and chorus; compositions by anonymous craftsmen with names lost to history and by that most famous of British monarchs, King Henry VIII.
The last few decades have seen a spectacular increase in the public appreciation of early music. This was the era that brought the musical scholar out of the museums and libraries and into the concert halls. "Gut" strings, valveless horns, half-forgotten instruments like the shawm and the viola da gamba were heard once again. The trove of Handel oratorios not named "Messiah," the daring theater works of Jean-Philippe Rameau and the 200-odd cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach were recorded and admired. A new understanding of a precious, long-neglected literature was fostered.
And so the time was ripe for this festival. The capital region has a distinguished tradition of early-music performance dating back more than two decades, with groups such as the Folger Consort, the Violins of Lafayette and the lamented Washington Camerata, among others, but it has never before called attention to itself with an undertaking of this magnitude. I hope it is the first festival of many; what a delightful June tradition this would make.
Listening to the Washington Cornett and Sackbutt Ensemble on Saturday afternoon, it was tempting to reflect on other, not-quite-so-scholastic origins of the early-music movement. I found myself thinking of English pop groups like Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band that thrived in the 1960s and early 1970s, pulsing out waves of sound that seemed both very old and absolutely brand-new, a perpetually surprising mixture of folk tradition and what used to be known as psychedelia. I was also reminded of the drone music of La Monte Young and the early Philip Glass. Obviously, the 20th century had no influence on the 16th, yet it is certainly possible that the players, most of whom would seem to have grown up in the 1960s and 1970s, were attracted to the unusual timbres and steady beat of the pop and avant-garde music of their time and thus inspired to mine some of the same qualities in works from a distant past.
Four selections by Henry VIII (here described, democratically, as Henry Tudor) were strung together into an agreeably cocky suite, held together by some aggressive drumming; it felt like a jam session. The sackbuts (Renaissance trombones) and cornetts (woodwinds with trumpet mouthpieces, also called cornettos) were played with raw, near-bluesy energy under the direction of Michael Holmes. There were also some vocal works, which were sung with plaintive authority, if not always the pinpoint accuracy of intonation other ensembles have brought to this music.
One of Britain's most popular contemporary composers is named John Tavener; he specializes in a sort of slow, clarified, consonant music that has come to be known as "holy minimalism." Holmes's engaging program notes didn't mention that the present-day Tavener is distantly related to the John Taverner who lived from about 1490 to 1545 and who wrote the "Benedictus" that was performed Saturday. Still, such was the eerie, timeless, hard-to-place beauty of the piece that had somebody told me it was written five months instead of five centuries ago, I might have believed it. Certainly, the two Tave(r)ners have more in common with each other than they do with, say, Beethoven or Brahms or even a modern composer (and fellow countryman) such as Benjamin Britten. Yesterday afternoon, the recorder player Scott Reiss joined forces with the lutenist Ronn McFarlane and the viol player Tina Chancey for an informal ramble through music from England, Ireland and Scotland. Much of this was improvised or freely arranged: There was, for example, a performance of "The Reel of Tulloch," originally played on the bagpipes, later on the fiddle, and transcribed for recorder by Reiss especially for this concert.
Reiss plays with fleet, joyous abandon, delighting in his virtuosity and impeccable articulation. He spun out the music like a storyteller, keeping the audience in happy suspense about where he might be going next. He brought humor, and sometimes even mischief, to the suites, folk melodies and sets of variations that made up the program; a general, delighted laughter often preceded applause at the end of a piece. McFarlane's renditions of some lute solos were more restrained but no less agreeable. Reiss promised that the afternoon would be "worth coming inside for" and, even on a day so lovely as yesterday turned out, he did not exaggerate.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Fred Moyes plays sackbut with the Washington Cornett and Sackbutt Ensemble at St. Mark's church.
(Photos Sarah Voisin -- The Washington Post)