The Christmas holidays not only bring attendant feelings of good cheer, but a host of musical programs as predictable as the cherubic faces behind an Advent Calendar. Last evening at The Barns of Wolf Trap, the Renaissance quartet Calliope, along with guest artist, soprano Lucy Shelton, presented a flavorful collection of seasonal vocal works and quickstep dance numbers from the 14th to the 17th centuries.
Performing on an array of period instruments, and attired in appropriate garb -- flowing velvet dresses for the women, multicolored jerkins over black shirts for the men -- Calliope transformed the warmly rustic, hand-hewn timbers of the room into a Renaissance Fair for their rich sound tapestries. The sprightly "Dances from the Mulliner Book," while repetitive melodically, sparkled with the contrasting timbres invested by the players who used most of the winds, reeds and strings in their impressive arsenal. A last-minute entry, "Entrez-vous" by Guillaume Dufay, found the trio of Allan Dean and Ben Harms on shawm (precursor to the oboe) and Lawrence Benz on sackbut (forerunner of the trombone) in raucous form--perhaps out of character, but thoroughly delightful.
Lucy Shelton lent her lustrous vocals in especially fine renditions of "Nowell, Nowell: Tidings true" and Robert Cooper's "Gloria in excelsis," where she implemented subtle shadings in her voice to blend with the instruments. Joining in on recorders and finger cymbals when she was not singing, Shelton led the group through five versions of Michael Praetorius' arrangement of the familiar "In dulci jubilo."
Calliope more than lives up to its name, which means beautiful-voiced. As performers on more than 40 different instruments, they are Renaissance musicians, in every sense of the word.